Arkansas wants to be global leader in next-generation transportation by 2030

by Paul Gatling ([email protected]) 2,842 views 

Flying cars frequently appear in movies or television shows depicting the future. The prospect of a world predicted by, for example, “The Jetsons” may be closer than you think. And Arkansas wants to be in the driver’s seat for the transportation revolution.

A joint news release issued Wednesday (Feb. 23) detailed the state’s collective vision to be a global leader in the future of transportation for next-generation technology by 2030. That includes not only the possibility of flying cars but driverless vehicles and drones.

Bentonville holding company Runway Group — a business team led by Steuart Walton and his younger brother, Tom Walton — issued the release on behalf of various stakeholders, including:

  • State of Arkansas
  • UP.Partners
  • Runway Group
  • Arkansas Aerospace and Defense Alliance
  • J.B. Hunt Transport Services
  • Walmart
  • Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce
  • University of Arkansas
  • Northwest Arkansas Council
  • Entergy

Arkansas is staking its claim in what is expected to be a trillion-dollar advanced air mobility (AAM) market. AAM is a new concept of air transportation that moves cargo and people between places using innovative aircraft.

Wednesday’s announcement follows Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s recent creation of the Arkansas Council on Future Mobility. During his state of the state address on Feb. 14, the governor said the task force would advise on state policy to assist the private sector in AAM areas and attract related businesses, startups, innovators and creators to the state. The group will include representatives from Walmart, Canoo, J.B. Hunt Transport, Entergy, Arkansas Trucking Association, Arkansas Auto Dealers Association, the University of Arkansas, Southern Arkansas University Tech and several state agencies. Also included is former Tyson Foods and Google executive Dean Banks.

On Tuesday, during a news conference at the Governor’s Mansion in Little Rock, Hutchinson said he has requested to see the group’s first report by Nov. 30 He also announced aviator, entrepreneur and investor Cyrus Sigari as the task force’s chairman. Sigari is co-founder and managing partner of UP.Partners, an early-stage venture capital firm in California investing in technology companies that support AAM and electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft industries, which Morgan Stanley predicts will become a $1.4 trillion market by 2040.

Gov. Hutchinson said Sigari is considered one of the world’s leading experts on future mobility, specifically AAM.

“This year the nation celebrates the 60th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s famous moon speech, and our goal is based on that same spirit of innovation, tenacity and entrepreneurship that existed in 1962 — we just happen to believe that it’s Arkansas’ turn to lead on that kind of effort,” Sigari said in a statement. “The state is in an ideal geographic location. It’s the headquarters to powerhouse companies in supply chain, logistics and retail insights. And the support from the state government to incentivize businesses and pioneers in this space makes this claim more than achievable.”

Sigari said during Tuesday’s news conference that between the work of Walmart, Tyson Foods, J.B. Hunt, Dassault Falcon Jet and other Arkansas companies, it can be argued that Arkansas controls the movement of more physical things than any other region in the world.

“Walmart alone is responsible for the movement of hundreds of billions of individual items every year,” he said.

Hutchinson said global partnerships forged last year would position Arkansas well for its aspirations to play a significant role in the future of transportation.

“Arkansas has been a leader in transportation and mobility for decades. Today we’re continuing to build on that legacy with the Arkansas Council on Future Mobility,” he said. “I recently traveled to Israel to speak of the work we’ve done in Arkansas with legislation passed in 2019 to allow the piloting of autonomous vehicles and the success we’ve seen thus far. Our storied history with the defense sector will also continue to grow in this new and emerging field of technology. The Natural State has the opportunity to become a hub for the future of mobility, and Arkansans are ready to take this challenge head on.”

According to the release, AAM will address the nation’s current labor shortage and supply chain challenges in the future. By 2045, the AAM market is expected to increase the number of STEM jobs in the state by over 4,000. It is predicted to generate $3.6 billion in new economic activity and related stimulus. Consumer goods, agriculture, healthcare, defense, and other sectors are likely to benefit.

Officials also alluded to the impact of an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) development and manufacturing center in Arkansas. It would create over 7,000 new full-time jobs and $9.9 billion in economic activity. Arkansas’ existing aerospace sector would grow by approximately 25% as a result.

“The commercial and defense industry impacts of AAM cannot be ignored, and the market is pushing for thoughtful and rapid deployment,” said Chad Causey, executive director of the Arkansas Aerospace & Defense Alliance (AADA). “With a highly skilled aerospace and defense workforce and a burgeoning entrepreneurial spirit, Arkansas can and will capitalize on this future growth. AAM is a natural fit for the Natural State. Arkansas’ aerospace and defense industries appreciate Governor Hutchinson’s leadership on this issue.”

Arkansas’ largest company, Walmart, is already testing in the AAM industry. The Bentonville-based retailer announced last year that it would operationalize drone delivery in four stores in Northwest Arkansas.

Walmart and autonomous vehicle startup Gatik have worked together since 2019 to pioneer self-driving refrigerated box trucks.

Together, the companies have driven more than 200,000 autonomous miles in the state and achieved an industry first last year when they removed the safety operator from the driver’s seat.

“We’re excited to experience the benefits of next-generation transportation, including its convenience, cost-savings and sustainable impact on communities. Our collaboration with both private and public sectors has not only helped us pioneer the use of autonomous vehicles and drones in the state of Arkansas, but in the retail industry as a whole, and it’s only just the beginning,” Walmart U.S. president and CEO John Furner said in a statement.

It is no secret that J.B. Hunt Transport, one of North America’s largest transportation and logistics companies, is interested in where emerging technologies will lead the industry in the years to come. The company recently expanded its partnership with Waymo on self-driving technology.

“We’re proud to be among the many people and organizations who envision a future where Arkansas leads the way in testing and implementing next-generation transportation technology,” said Craig Harper, chief sustainability officer and executive vice president at J.B. Hunt. “Collaboration between the public and private sectors will be critical to understanding how electric vehicles, autonomous vehicles and other emerging technologies are implemented. Beyond that, it displays a collective desire and commitment to finding long-term solutions that will impact the transportation industry and ultimately the motoring public.”

Student and employee retention are projected to increase as more jobs are created in relevant fields such as electrical and aerospace engineering, manufacturing, and IT.

“The University of Arkansas is excited to see this interest and investment in this important growth area,” said Dr. Alan Mantooth, University of Arkansas distinguished professor of electrical engineering. “As the only institution with a silicon carbide (SiC) research and fabrication facility and very high research activity, the U of A is uniquely positioned to support this effort with the ability to produce world-class applied research and innovations in power electronics, energy systems, logistics and supply chain, and cybersecurity. The University of Arkansas is proud to be a part of this effort to support the state’s emerging smart mobility sector, providing research, technologies and a well-prepared workforce.”

In the past three months, two electric vehicle startups have made significant Arkansas announcements. Envirotech Vehicles of California will locate a multimillion-dollar commercial EV plant in Osceola, with plans to hire up to 800 workers over the next 10 years. California startup Canoo announced in November 2021 it would locate its headquarters in Bentonville and a research and development facility in Fayetteville.

Officials expect AAM investments to spark local economic growth, positioning Arkansas as a hub for AAM business clusters. The Walton-backed Runway Group said it’s already made a multimillion-dollar investment in the initiative.

Northwest Arkansas Council president and CEO Nelson Peacock said the AAM market should attract young startup companies and provide them with tools to prototype, test and scale new technologies and ultimately support their growth.

The investment in the future of transportation will bridge the urban-rural divide in Arkansas, increasing connectivity and accessibility. Providers can bring medications and supplies directly to patients instead of transporting them to the medicine, which provides new opportunities for healthcare, medical suppliers and first responders.

“This effort exemplifies the bold ideas and collaboration transforming Arkansas into a hub for innovation,” Peacock said. “As more companies choose Arkansas as the home base for their cutting-edge technologies, these investments will revolutionize our workforce, create jobs and shape an innovative culture that propels the local economy forward.”