When you think of Panasonic, you might think home electronics, but the Japan-based company, which turns 100 this year, can also be found on planes via seat-back entertainment and in cars via infotainment systems and batteries; 51 percent of the Tesla Gigafactory is dedicated to producing Panasonic-branded batteries, too.
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But the company's biggest play is called CityNow, a bid to become the go-to partner for cities that are ready for a serious futuristic upgrade.
PCMag was in Denver recently, which happens to be Panasonic's first CityNow rollout in the US. We met Jarrett Wendt, EVP of Panasonic Enterprise Solutions, at the company's new building, a green edifice that produces more energy than it consumes. It's also in the middle of nowhere: 400 acres of a city sector yet to be built, dotted with cranes, demarcated with developers' billboards, just one stop in from Denver Airport.
"I was tasked to find out what translates from our success with the first Sustainable Smart Town in Fujisawa, Japan," Wendt told PCMag. "That was an 8.5-year build process and is complete with renewable energy systems providing a five-day resilience for off-grid power, EV charging stations, the latest security systems and IoT-enabled homes and businesses throughout.
"The entire ecosystem delivers a reduction of 70 percent in carbon dioxide, with a return of 30 percent energy back to the grid, and a 25 percent increase in homeownership value to date, proving the point that building green isn't necessarily a cash burn, but is highly incentivized for buyers," he said.
Although Denver is the first full CityNow rollout for Wendt's team, they were initially tasked by the Atlanta Braves to reimagine what a microcity—a live sports stadium and surrounding businesses—could become.
"Stadium owners are pivoting towards full 24/7 life/work/play environments," Wendt explained. "Another of our projects was designing and implementing the interactive kiosks, solar energy power, signage and transportation management for AEG's L.A. LIVE, with multiple large LED video boards, including a massive 7,840-square-foot custom-built mesh LED board that provides full-motion video bright enough to see even in direct sunlight."
Now it's full steam ahead on Denver, which is almost two years into the decade-long project.
"Since early 2016, when we started on Denver CityNow, we've vetted 11 technology suppliers, developed an open API, established a carbon-neutral district, got approval from the public utility and installed the first microgrid, with solar panels on Denver Airport property, in partnership with Xcel Energy, which can power this area for 72 hours in the event of a natural, or manmade, disaster.
"We've installed LED street lighting, as part of a Smart Streets initiative, including public safety cameras, environmental sensing, parking management, interactive kiosks and community-wide Wi-Fi," Wendt continued. "We're testing Argonne's Array sensors, alongside many other innovations, and last, but not least, we're implementing the largest DOT connected vehicle contract in the US to the tune of $72 million."
To demo this, Wendt took us into the control room, full of screens displaying live cams on city highways and associated real-time data feeds, and showed us how the smart mobility solutions platform for connected highways and vehicles are paving the way to autonomous vehicles.
In spring 2018, Panasonic will roll out an autonomous shuttle connecting the 61st and Pena Station light rail station to bus routes on Tower Road in partnership with French company Easymile. But Panasonic provided a sneak peek on Dec. 4, when the shuttle made its inaugural ride to Pena Station.
Why Denver? Because, as Wendt explained, his team was pleasantly surprised at the lack of bureaucratic holdups. Agencies in Colorado—across energy and utilities, transport, housing, big business—were ready to go.
"At Panasonic, we're not political, we just want to get things done," said Wendt. "So when the governor of Colorado, the mayor and all the stakeholders here in Denver, said: 'This area could be your 'living lab' and become the US version of your success in Japan,' we said: 'We're listening.' Because, we know, if you can't get all those stakeholders in alignment, our ability to be effective deteriorates significantly."
To survive economically through the next few decades, cities need to get green, strip out legacy tech, and install the latest in IoT infrastructure, not just to save costs and ensure sustainability for the future, but also to win the reputation as a forward-thinking place, to attract the right businesses, workforce, and residential population. However, it's near impossible to manage a city-wide project, on the scale that Panasonic proposes, through piecemeal public procurement projects to refit LED street lights or install a new traffic system.
In fact, if a city cannot ensure that all the right decision makers can not only sit in the same room with the sort of city in-fighting that usually goes on, but agree—then Panasonic can go elsewhere to prove its CityNow model. One wonders how many city boardrooms Wendt has done this presentation in, only to move on when it became clear how daunting the task would be.