FutureStructure

Ohio Accelerates Self-Driving Vehicle Effort Through Smart Belt Coalition

The coalition is a collaboration among transportation agencies and academic institutions in Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania to establish standards and to make the region more competitive in the autonomous tech industry.

by Ginger Christ, The Plain Dealer, Cleveland / January 27, 2017

(TNS) -- CLEVELAND, Ohio - Self-driving vehicle testing may be headed to I-90 in Lake County.

Gov. John Kasich today announced that his upcoming budget will include funding to make I-90 from I-271 to the Pennsylvania state line one of the newest places where autonomous vehicles will hit the roads.

The I-90 corridor is one of the latest roads in the state to be named a testing ground for self-driving vehicles, what the state is calling a "smart highway."

The Ohio Turnpike and the Smart Mobility Corridor - a 35-mile stretch of road outside of Columbus - already have been identified as routes for autonomous and connected vehicle research and have had self-driving commercial trucks operate on them.

The governor's new budget also includes funding to make the I-270 beltway in Columbus a smart highway as part of the state's creation of an "expanding network of smart highways."

Kasich hopes to make Ohio a center for development of the autonomous driving industry. He has said he wants to see technological investments in the industry help redefine Ohio, which too often is referred to as the "Rust Belt."

During a press conference Thursday, he also announced a $45 million investment in the Transportation Research Center - an automotive testing facility northwest of Columbus.

Smart Belt Coalition

The I-90 news comes on the heels of the formation of a three-state coalition to advance autonomous and connected vehicle technology.

The Smart Belt Coalition is a collaboration among transportation agencies and academic institutions in Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania to establish standards and to make the region more competitive in the industry.

The name is a play on the region's "Rust Belt" identifier, explained Matt Smith, coalition program manager for the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT).

All three states are in various stages of self-driving and connected vehicle exploration, and coalition members want to work together to bring the region to the forefront of the development. That means sharing research, establishing standards and not duplicating efforts across state lines.

"The end goal definitely is to make sure we are leveraging what we're doing," Smith said. "It will make us more competitive as a region."

The current partners include:

Ohio: The Ohio Turnpike and Infrastructure Commission, the Ohio State University and the Transportation Research Center

Michigan: MDOT, the University of Michigan and the American Center for Mobility

Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission Carnegie Melon University.

Randy Cole, executive director of the Ohio Turnpike, said the coalition could help create thousands of miles of testing roads among the three states and "help forge a movement throughout the greater Midwest that competes with those southern, sunny type states where we already hear of so much happening: Texas, Nevada, California and other places."

"We are trying to get the attention of the feds, of the major auto manufacturers and technology companies that are investing in this," Cole said.

Each state will work on different parts of the autonomous and connected vehicle puzzle. Ohio, which is focused on freight, likely will explore concepts like platooning, he said.

Platooning involves creating a train of autonomous commercial trucks. Vehicle-to-vehicle communication allows the vehicles to travel in a close group, which reduces fuel burn and cuts wind resistance.

And together, the states will work on establishing regional standards that could lay the groundwork for national standards on autonomous vehicles that yet to be adopted, MDOT's Smith said.

"Any of the work that can happen that we can pilot and show that works amongst the three states is something that can be used as a nationwide standard," Smith said.

What actually is happening

There are two key terms to understand when talking about smart vehicle technology: "autonomous" and "connected."

Autonomous, or self-driving, vehicles are those that do not require a person to drive them; they are fully automated. Connected vehicles are those that have the ability to communicate with the driver, other vehicles and with infrastructure.

In Ohio, both technologies are being tested.

The Ohio Turnpike already is outfitted with fiber optic cable that allows researchers to gather data on the operations of autonomous vehicles. In May, the state will begin installing fiber along the Smart Mobility Corridor.

The fiber optic cable not only allows for information to be gathered on autonomous vehicle operation but also allows researchers to test connected vehicle technology.

For example, in Michigan researchers are experimenting with sending work zone warnings to connected vehicles. Information about upcoming lane closures is broadcast into the vehicle, which then alerts the driver OR THE VEHICLE'S DRIVERLESS OPERATION SYSTEM of potentially unsafe conditions based on the vehicle's speed and location.

Fiber like that being installed in Ohio would ensure that the information being sent and received is highly accurate because there would be a guaranteed strong connection signal between the infrastructure and the vehicle.

What's ahead

A number of major automotive companies expect to have fully autonomous vehicles on the market within the next few years; some say even as soon as 2019.

Uber for the past four months has been testing self-driving vehicles in Pittsburgh. The company owns Otto - the self-driving truck company that is completing road tests in Ohio. And Google for years has tested its autonomous vehicles on city streets - from Mountain View, Calif. to Austin, Texas.

Self-driving cars are being touted as safer alternatives to traditional vehicles, which are vulnerable to human error, and as ways to increase productivity for commuters.

©2017 The Plain Dealer, Cleveland Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.