21st Century Ghost Town

PegasusGlobal_200x242You can file this in the folder marked “we’ll believe it when we see it.”

Ground is supposed to be broken this month for a special project on a roadside site in a deserted section of southern New Mexico. The project envisions building from scratch an entire new city—spread over 15 square miles and designed to resemble an American town with a population of 35,000—and filling its environs with the latest high-tech toys, everything from driverless cars to drones.

But one thing this new berg won’t have is people, other than a few techno types in lab coats. An initiative of a Washington State-based tech development outfit called Pegasus Global Holdings, the prototype city that will rise a few miles from Las Cruces, NM will be called the Center for Innovation, Testing and Evaluation (CITE). The estimated cost is $1 billion and it will take up to five years to build.

CITE will feature all of the normal accoutrements you’d expect to see in a city, including tall office buildings, alleys, parks, churches, a gas station, a big box retail outlet and even a simulated interstate highway. It will include neighborhoods zoned for urban, suburban and rural use, with infrastructure and utilities. But that’s where the similarities with urban America end, unless your town is a futuristic, Jetsons-style theme park filled with flying machines. CITE will be a testbed that will study best practices for integrating cutting-edge technology like drone delivery services and driverless cars into the everyday life of towns and cities.

The managing director of Pegasus is a fellow named Bob Brumley, a former telecomm CEO who also served as chairman of a Reagan Administration policy group that promoted privatization of commercial space transportation. In a recent interview with Wired magazine, Brumley said he hopes to have the utilities infrastructure for CITE installed within two years and the city completed by 2020. Brumley told Wired the main idea behind CITE is to facilitate large-scale tech experiments and urban planning in a real-world setting “without anyone getting hurt.”

Experiments now on the CITE drawing board are said to include AI-enabled traffic management, roads filled with driverless delivery vehicles, solar and geothermal power generation, smart-grid technology and the deployment of sensors and data collection for “public monitoring, security and computer systems.” There also will be airborne drone delivery units dropping packages on doorsteps.

The experiments won’t just focus on how these high-tech systems can work seamlessly in an urban environment; they’ll also analyze the best methods for dealing with unexpected breakdowns (an example given is “a controlled interference with existing wireless systems involving a spectrum disruption.”)

More ominously, Pegasus reportedly plans to simulate large-scale attacks on energy, telecomm and traffic systems and the effects of a massive electromagnetic pulse (the sort of thing that might be created by a nuclear weapon detonating over the state). There also is talk of CITE trying out some currently unlicensed energy technology, like a thorium nuclear reactor. [We’re just guessing here, but does it seem like a good bet that Mr. Brumley’s desk is filled with RFP application forms from the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security?]

Pegasus certainly picked an appropriate location for its spooky, futuristic venture. The CITE site, 60 miles north of the Mexican border, is a stone’s throw from the White Sands Missile Range and the desolate spot where the first atomic bomb was tested in 1945. It’s also down the road from Spaceport America, the commercial spaceport used by Virgin Galactic and SpaceX.

The original plan for CITE was announced in 2011, but Pegasus had trouble nailing down a location and the project was almost derailed last year when President Obama designated a half-million acres in southern New Mexico as part of the new Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument. Pegasus and Brumley insist they’re now ready to go.

We’ll take them at their word and wish them well, but we strongly suspect that the relevance of the planned CITE testbed is rapidly eroding and most likely will be overtaken by real-world developments well before the scheduled 2020 completion date.

As this is being written, Google and several other tech giants already have sent hundreds of driverless cars onto the roads of several states (most notably California). The Federal Aviation Administration has given a tentative green light to the commercial use of drones in U.S. airspace; FAA estimates that by the end of next year there could be more than 7,000 commercial drones flitting around in U.S. skies. There also are numerous municipal projects underway to integrate smart technologies (a.k.a. the Internet of things) into key urban systems like traffic management and power transmission.

It’s a great altruistic concept to conduct large-scale tests of new technology in a safe, isolated environment, but that’s not the way it usually happens in the real world. When Edison and Tesla were competing to install the first electricity grid, they didn’t string wire in the middle of the desert—they hooked up Lower Manhattan.

The highly automated machines that will revolutionize (and, in some cases, perhaps terrorize) our lives already are here and their numbers are growing exponentially. Ready or not, these gee-whiz robotic devices and systems are coming soon to a neighborhood near you.

As always, we’ll have to adapt to them in real time and in real places and, yes, someone may get hurt in the process.