© 2023 Peoria Public Radio
A joint service of Bradley University and Illinois State University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The Peoria Area Is Becoming A 'Living Laboratory' For The Future of Transportation

A Lexus MKZ1 autonomous research development vehicle used to test Morton's AutonomouStuff's self-driving vehicle software in Peoria in 2019.
Roger Chester
A Lexus MKZ1 autonomous research development vehicle used to test Morton's AutonomouStuff's self-driving vehicle software in Peoria in 2019.

The future of mobility lies in connected, autonomous, shared and electric tech.

Tim Shelley speaks with Hanson Professional Services' Kurt Bialobreski and Philip Lockwood, and Distillery Labs CEO Paul Leamon, about the new Central Illinois Living Laboratory - a testing ground for high-tech mobility.

TIM SHELLEY: The Central Illinois Living Laboratory. Just what is it, just to start?

KURT BIALOBRESKI: So the Central Illinois Living Laboratory is actually a part of Distillery Labs. But it is a real world application for people to test smart city and smart mobility type technologies or processes or analytic techniques, where mall companies and large companies can combine, and pilot those opportunities or ideas that they have. And do it in a way that can help them figure out if there's a business opportunity down the road that they can continue to pursue.

TIM SHELLEY: It's kind of focused on what we call CASE. So connected, autonomous, shared and electric mobility trends. So talk to me a little bit about that. We're talking, you know, high tech stuff here.

PHILIP LOCKWOOD: Well, some of its been around. CASE, the connected part is sort of twofold. One is about connecting the assets or the various vehicles together, so they're talking to each other. But then a broader definition is also about connecting forms of mobility together.

So in the future, you want to go on a trip from Peoria to Paris, you book your whole trip, or you live in East Peoria, so you actually book your ride from East Peoria to the Peoria airport, to O'Hare and so on. And that's all done in one thing. And so that whole connecting all of the modes of transportation are leading towards what's known as mobility as a service.

The autonomous piece has a lot of attention these days, especially from companies like Tesla, in what they're doing with autonomous vehicles. But in a much more usable sense, the autonomous leads towards other forms of autonomous mobility. So shuttle services that may be for getting to, to work, to healthcare, to school or to retail. And those things are important, especially in areas that are somewhat underserved by current forms of mass transportation, are those without cars.

The shared economy is one that people are well aware of, thanks to companies like Uber and Lyft. But in the future, that shared block broadens into such things as micro mobility. At the bicycle share and e-scooters at the lowest end, all the way through to if someone needs a large on highway truck, that there's a means of us having access and using those forms of mobility without having to own them, per se.

And then electrics is really the area that's getting a lot of attention right now as it relates to the environment and sustainability. And so, you know, the expected growth in electric vehicles expected essentially grow logarithmically over the next eight to 10 years. And so with that, there's not only that the vehicles that are electric, but then also changing the entire service grid, so that can supplement service stations or providing fuel to analysis providing charging stations, and eventually, that becomes a hybrid. And hopefully for many, the idea of the internal combustion engine goes away.

TIM SHELLEY: Absolutely. So let's talk a little bit about who uses the living laboratory. I know AutonomouStuff did their testing in downtown Peoria a couple years back and I know Caterpillar has their autonomous mining equipment they test at the Proving Grounds and all that, but, I mean, what, what kind of companies or what kind of innovators would be would be using the living laboratory here, specifically?

PAUL LEAMON: Tim, I'll I'll maybe take this opportunity to jump in and then Philip and Kurt, certainly fill in any other pieces that are missing, as well.

So kind of taking a step back to the reason why this lives inside Distillery Labs. Going back to really the foundational elements of what Distillery Labs is, our mission, and why we exist. And that is to bring together people ideas and resources to be able to launch and grow new companies in the Peoria region. So that's our fundamental baseline of what our mission is.

So this component of it, Central Illinois Living Laboratory is part resources, developing resources available to entrepreneurs, people that have ideas or want to test ideas. And so a lot of the programmatic elements that will have a Distillery Labs is really being able to take innovation and new ideas and test them in a real market environment to get feedback.

And to continue to evolve and iterate on ideas to make sure that there's technology market fit, there's product market fit, and all the elements that go into building a brand new company at the cutting edge of technology.

And so the types of people that we envision utilizing these resources that we're building underneath this program, would be individual entrepreneurs or teams of entrepreneurs that are looking to test ideas that can then utilize information that's collected inside the smart and connected city, as well as corporations. Lots of great innovation. And entrepreneurial companies come out of large corporations as well. And so envisioning kind of both of those ends of the spectrum being involved in this project.

KURT BIALOBRESKI: Oh, and I would add, Tim, to what Paul mentioned, is that the Distillery Labs and the living laboratory are part of the greater Illinois Innovation Network.

And so as a part of that innovation, that Innovation Network, you know, it's even available to students, and entrepreneurial students that are attending, whether it's Bradley, or, you know, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, other entrepreneurial systems.

I mean, just the other day, I think I just saw in my alumni announcements that IBM just recently put $200 million into doing AI and cloud computing and other types of technology research at the University of Illinois Urbana- Champaign. So you can start to see how all these resources and all these things dovetail so that we can hopefully create the economic development opportunities that Paul mentioned, and start to really advance these causes within our own communities and keep some of this talent here locally.

PHILIP LOCKWOOD: Yep. So conceptually, the living laboratory is an ecosystem. And it's also part of an ecosystem. That ecosystem we're looking to build is one that looks at all of the different aspects of what people may call smart city or smart community, all the way through to Smart Mobility.

And so in that looking to put some shape, some geographic boundaries to allow us to have a more defined scope. But as part being part of that ecosystem, being part of the Distillery Labs, allows us to seamlessly work with throughout the whole University of Illinois System, as Kurt mentioned.

And so potentially, there's a path for those who are entrepreneurial students that are maybe studying in engineering, urban design, whether it's a UIC similar types of studies at Bradley, and then those ideas can actually graduate in some respects to now operate within the living laboratory and prove them out.

And at the same time, we'll provide, thanks to Paul and his team and others will be helping, shape some of that activity through new methodologies to so that those things are done. You may have heard things like fast, quick experiments. So we doing some things that are small experiments and looking to do some rapid prototyping of ideas, so we can get them going. And so and then ultimately, those ideas and concepts can scale up to other areas, whether they're similar to Peoria the region, which is we have a mix of the urban, exurban, suburban and rural, or purely the urban concepts to other urban areas.

So we believe that our region provides a huge amount of assets for us to build this conceptual laboratory. Our biggest challenge right now is actually putting some focus to our efforts.

So along those lines, we're now working to define a loop. We're calling it the "Smart and Connected Peoria Loop" that fundamentally is bounded by Main Street, Western Avenue and Washington. So it's almost a big triangle. And so there are many important assets within there. But there's also a large geographic area that's been in some ways unserved. And we'd rather say that it's provides even greater opportunities for proving these concepts and having whether we create new companies from within or attract those from afar to come here, proof those technologies.

And so you asked about some companies. We're working right now with a company that actually has a drone delivery solution. So we may be able to incorporate that as part of a last mile solution for delivery, whether it's one of the, you know, the normal FedEx, UPS, or otherwise, Amazon.

Also looking at low speed autonomous shuttles, especially for getting patients to healthcare. And so there's some work that's being done at the national level on design standards and policy guidelines on new forms of shuttles. And so we're working to position our region's being one of the first in the country to be able to pilot them and, and highlight also the great Medical District that we have right inside of that smart loop. Bradley University is in that loop. And so we're working with them to develop one of the first smart campuses, so applying all the concepts of, of smart cities, and smart communities to Bradley, and now they become fully integrated with the city, the neighborhoods around, and so on. So those are the kinds of projects, the end project work, we'll be doing, internal to that loop.

TIM SHELLEY: It sounds like Peoria really has a lot of various assets, from the Bradley talent pipeline to the Medical District, Distillery Labs. It's a lot of different assets that can be capitalized upon to really bring this vision that you're describing to fruition. Is Peoria poisoning itself for something much bigger here?

PHILIP LOCKWOOD: Poising? I would say it's the other way around. Positioning us to be in a great position for the future. And, you know, one of the things is we're trying to [change] that mindset from "not in my backyard," to "yes, in my backyard." And so how do we get people to start thinking about that? But also, as we progress, how this becomes a catalyst for entrepreneurship and innovation?

And so as we engage stakeholders in that loop, we'll be provide educating them on methods about starting a company, and entrepreneurship, and innovation, and methodologies that could be can become applicable, if they have an interest in starting your own business, whether it's related to our subject matter area or something else.

PAUL LEAMON: And taking it even towards, you know, social impact type of investing and entrepreneurship. Right? So Bradley just had a fantastic pitch challenge around social impact companies. And so envisioning some of the things that would come out of this might be, you know, how do we solve some of the food desert issues that we have in South Peoria and the East Bluff, and some other areas.

And so utilizing these technologies, and then the systems put in place to develop businesses, even social impact businesses that have a double bottom line, to solve some of these social issues that we have in and around Peoria.

TIM SHELLEY: Just to wrap up, what else should people know about this? And if there's somebody out here listening to this, what should they know if they want to get involved. that they say, this is an opportunity I want to explore?

KURT BIALOBRESKI: From my perspective, I would say the first thing that you need to do is to go to Distillery Labs and look at what they have out there on their website. Start looking at some of the presentations and the different activities and programming that that are going on. And there's Whiskey Talks and all those kinds of things out there. And then Paul can give you more way more detail on them than I have.

But I think that's where it starts is that you know, we take our the resources that we've just spent the last 15 minutes talking about and really double down on them. As a community, as the greater Central Illinois community and coalesce around it and start to, to move our community forward.

PAUL LEAMON: Yep. And I would, you know, support what Kurt said and expand in terms of both of these are startup organizations, both Distillery Labs and Central Illinois Living Laboratory itself. So things are just getting started. There'll be more and more activity, as the summer hits. In late summer, Distillery Labs, as a physical location, our target is to be open, as a place to co-work and build different types of companies. That target would be spring of next year. So 2022, hopefully. Construction starting this fall. But as you know, stay tuned. Follow us on social media, follow the website. More and more programming, even ahead of that physical building, will be coming out.

KURT BIALOBRESKI: And I think that some of our other opportunities that are coming from this are the county and OSF, and where Philip and I work, Hanson Professional Services, amongst other larger corporations are trying to double down these efforts, as well in bringing the G beta program to Central Illinois here, hopefully, this late summer timeframe that Paul mentioned.

So doing those kinds of things and activities. And really, I think Phil talked about having, you know, entrepreneurship and progressing forward. And that is really where we're going with this, and encouraging everyone try to do those things or do them within their organizations, whether if it's a large corporation or not. We can all do a better job of trying to try to advance that cause and make where we live a better place.

PHILIP LOCKWOOD: Even along those lines, some of our efforts are really working to break down some silos that may be perceived between different organizations, and some that may have never even worked together before. To truly build synergy.

And again, it's that getting that excitement, and how we can change the culture of our region to be thinking towards entrepreneurship, startups and, and innovations. And what we're doing with a living laboratory is focused on our environment around us, and how we move around, and also this abundant amount of data that's collected each and every day, and how that may be useful, whether it's forcity services, businesses, or most especially, the citizens themselves.

Some people think, oh, we're making the next version of Sprockets City from the old Jetsons, but in many respects, this is actually making what exists now, bringing it together, not breaking down barriers, or the connectivity piece of that, and then ultimately turning that into useful information when people need it and want it.

We depend on your support to keep telling stories like this one. You – together with donors across the NPR Network – create a more informed public. Fact by fact, story by story. Please take a moment to donate now and fund the local news our community needs. Your support truly makes a difference.

Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.