Our JourneyEngaging Residents, Students and Community Leaders through Smart Columbus Live
November 3rd, 2021
As the winner of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge, Columbus is committed to engaging all residents in the journey to becoming “smart,” and has engaged in multiple avenues to share learnings with peer cities around the world. In June 2018, the Smart Columbus Experience Center opened, located in the heart of Columbus’ downtown along the newly transformed Scioto Mile.
This public, interactive venue provides a first-of-its-kind learning destination about how mobility technology and innovation can improve people’s lives and the communities where we live. Since the Experience Center opened in July 2018, over 30,000 visitors from the Columbus region and around the globe have visited the 3,000 square-foot showroom.
“Opening a public Experience Center helps visitors imagine what the future will look like with a connected, autonomous, shared and sustainable transportation ecosystem that puts people first,” says Alex Slaymaker, smart mobility adoption manager for Smart Columbus, who has managed the Experience Center since 2019. “People have begun to understand what Smart Columbus is doing to transport our city to the future and learn what they can do to help us get there together.”
The Future of Mobility
Guests can engage in a variety of exhibits including an interactive touchscreen module outlining Smart Columbus’ project portfolio, a story tower that shows how new technologies will benefit real residents, electric vehicle (EV) charging education, video-as-a-sensor technology, innovative utility collaboration, real-time energy use information and more.
“I hope every resident who visits the center will see how our efforts to embrace the latest mobility technologies will personally benefit them, and that they will identify ways — big and small — that they can act to help us transport our city to the future,” Columbus Mayor Andrew J. Ginther said at the opening of the Experience Center in July 2018.
The Experience Center is built on a strong foundation of public-private partnerships, reflecting the Columbus Way philosophy that guides Smart Columbus. Because Smart Columbus is active in educating the private sector on mobility options, many of our 70 partner companies frequent the Experience Center for test drive events and lunch and learn events for their employees.
Funding for construction was provided by the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, the State of Ohio Capital Bill, the City of Columbus, and private investors. The majority of technology and exhibits are donated by local and national partners. The Experience Center was designed in partnership with IBM iX and Orange Barrel Media. Vehicles for display and test drives are generously provided by local car dealerships and vehicle manufacturers in coordination with the Smart Columbus Electrified Dealer program. Behind the showroom, an additional 5,000 sq. ft. is dedicated meeting and open collaborative office space with staff and consultants representing six different organizations.
Ambassadors Provide One-Of-A-Kind Experience
On average, Smart Columbus has five paid ambassadors on staff at the Experience Center, who are trained to answer questions from guests about EVs, mobility and the overall goals of Smart Columbus. Ambassadors are critical front-line representatives of the initiative. An ambassadors’ primary responsibility is to provide a high-quality guest experience at the Smart Columbus Experience Center.
Every visitor will have a unique perspective, level of education, and/or understanding of smart cities and Smart Columbus. Whether visitors are interested in a quick self-guided walk thru, a facilitated tour, or an EV test drive, ambassadors ensure visitors leave knowing who we are and how they can get involved.
“The Experience Center ambassador team are excellent at engaging the community. They are personable, professional, knowledgeable, hard-working, and engaging. They are comfortable engaging residents unfamiliar with emerging mobility technologies, but can also talk shop with industry experts,” shared Slaymaker.
Ambassadors also serve as right seat drivers on EV test drives to both direct the driver on a pre-planned route with city and highway driving while educating them about EV technology. At the Experience Center, ambassadors provide an open dialogue on EVs and are knowledgeable in both the nuts and bolts and the latest technology of the cars.
Test drive participants rated ambassador knowledge as 4.7 out of 5 stars and their overall experience at the Center as 4.8 out of 5 stars.
The relaxed and comfortable atmosphere created at the Smart Columbus Experience Center without the sales pressure of a dealership allows for questions people are often hesitant to ask.
No Pressure EV Test Drives
One of the primary tenants of the Smart Columbus Experience Center is the use of brand-agnostic EV test drives with a fleet of vehicles across the brand spectrum. The purpose of test drives is to provide hands-on learning of EV technology available in the Columbus region in an educational, non-sales environment. Since opening, more than 450 EV test drives have been conducted from the Smart Columbus Experience Center.
Brand-agnostic test drives are an effective tool for increasing consumer and fleet adoption of EVs. Test drive program success depends heavily on the skills, knowledge and approach of right seat drivers.
Zakaria Farah, an ambassador who has been with Smart Columbus since the center opened, says that each test drive experience is unique to the people in the vehicle, sharing that each test drive is more like a conversation than a lecture. One primary goal he strives for is to highlight that EVs are “not just the environmentally conscious alternative, but rather there’s an EV that makes sense for everyone.”
The ambassadors are trained by the Smart Columbus team and original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) who provide in-depth information on their EVs. Ambassadors also have to be knowledgeable on the wide range of projects that Smart Columbus is currently working on, which allows for a wider understanding of sustainable transportation to be shared with community members.
Ambassadors are educating guests on the advanced technology available in EVs, rather than selling a certain vehicle. Farah says that this allows for guests to have a greater trust in the brand-agnostic experience and the information that is being provided.
With the wide range of options to test drive, ambassadors are able to share both vehicle-specific knowledge, such as range and retail price, along with charging and regenerative braking. People are encouraged to test multiple EVs and are provided with take-home information about all EVs available in the Columbus region.
The Smart Columbus Experience Center fleet has between four to six EVs of the latest models on site, allowing for test drivers to experience several different vehicles in one day. Farah says he encourages guests to take advantage of this option. “Otherwise you'll really have to go to multiple locations across the city,” he says.
The ambassador team ensures vehicles are ready for test drives by charging vehicles at charging stations at the center, cleaning the interior, taking the vehicles to car washes, and conducting regular vehicle inspections. Ambassadors alert management of any vehicle needs (i.e. tire pressure, windshield wiper fluid).
Test Drive Data
Each participant’s experience starts with signing up online or on an iPad at the center for a specific vehicle and time. The registration platform was built from scratch in partnership with Pillar Technologies (now Accenture Industry X.0) and includes a variety of functions beyond registration including an administration portal with data analysis and fleet management functions. Participants are given the option to sign-up as a driver or rider.
Participations complete a digital pre- and post-drive survey via the portal including questions about demographics, EV attitudes/ preferences, and their next vehicle purchase. Survey results are anonymized and analyzed to optimize program impact, support cutting-edge research and to discern market insights.
In the post-drive survey, participants have the opportunity to opt-in to be contacted by a local dealership about the vehicle they test drove. This critical feature ensures the test drive program is delivering value back to the vehicle manufactures and dealerships partnering with Smart Columbus and donating vehicles to the test drive program.
The test drive program was designed with safety as the top priority. Fifteen-minute test drive routes were strategically designed for optimal safety, with majority right turns and low-risk highway merging included. Ambassadors are trained to adapt routes as needed to detour around accidents/rush hour and/or avoid the highway if a test driver isn’t comfortable driving at high speeds in a new vehicle.
Proactive risk mitigation and emergency planning is important to a successful public test drive program. All participants are required to sign a waiver created by Smart Columbus prior to their drive and some vehicle manufacturers require an additional waiver. A separate waiver is required for minors to ride, but noone under 18 years of age can test drive. Drivers are required to have personal auto insurance and the vehicles are also insured by Smart Columbus. In case of an emergency involving a test drive vehicle, there is a guidance document with emergency protocol steps for various scenarios in each test drive vehicle. This document includes an accident report template. Route design, waivers, insurance, regular vehicle checks, and an accident protocol are critical components of putting safety first in a test drive program.
The Experience Center also serves as a touchpoint for thought leaders and officials across the globe who are interested in the best practices of launching a smart city. Since the Experience Center opened in July 2018, visitors from 80 cities and 69 countries have visited, many of those participating in our learning exchange program where they attend presentations from Smart Columbus staff on specific initiatives.
Area businesses who are a part of the Acceleration Partner program have often scheduled lunch and learn and test drive events as another way to teach employees about Smart Columbus initiatives.
The goal of these activities is to inspire the adoption of smart city work locally and across the globe.
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