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Proposed Facility at UConn to Study AVs, Smart City Tech

A research facility at the University of Connecticut's Spectrum Park would allow various companies to test smart car and infrastructure technology in collaboration with university researchers.

Aerial UConn
University of Connecticut
(TNS) — A vacant portion of the University of Connecticut’s campus in Mansfield is on track to become the first autonomous vehicle and smart city research facility in the region.

The proposed Spectrum Park development is spearheaded by Eric Jackson, executive director of the Connecticut Transportation Institute, and Steve Cortese, head of Promesa Capital LLC, who envision a facility that will drive innovation, foster job growth, and above all, improve safety.

“I’m really excited to be involved in something that is going to further the safety of transportation as we know it,” Cortese said.

In late June, Jackson and Cortese moved one step closer to making their vision a reality when the UConn Board of Trustees approved an option for Promesa to purchase 105 acres of UConn’s Depot Campus for $5 million for the company to construct its $30 million-$40 million Connected and Autonomous Vehicle test track and research facility.

“It’ll be the first in the Northeast of this magnitude,” Jackson said.

Under the Board of Trustees’ agreement, Promesa will have nine months to review the site and seek zoning approvals before purchasing the land. Promesa and UConn may extend this period for an additional two years under certain conditions.

Once finished, Jackson and Cortese said that the Spectrum Park research center will be a place where various companies can test smart car and infrastructure technology in collaboration with UConn researchers.

The facility will include crash-test sites, simulated urban, rural and highway driving environments, intersections, roundabouts, parking lots, ramps and other forms of smart infrastructure.

“What we’re proposing and hoping to be able to build is a facility that anybody that’s developing this technology can bring their car here,” Jackson said. “The goal would be to provide this rich environment for faculty, staff and students, both graduates and undergraduates.”

In a UConn press release about the project, Mansfield Mayor Toni Moran said the Depot Campus’ federal designation as an Opportunity Zone, provides tax incentives and other opportunities that businesses can benefit from.

“Mansfield as a community is committed to smart economic development, sited in the right place, that is environmentally responsible and leads to job creation. This kind of enterprise will also help keep our young people in Connecticut and in Mansfield,” Moran said.

Additional proposals for the facility include exploring opportunities in renewable energy, collaborating with the Connecticut State Police for police training at the site, and working with the Connecticut Department of Education to train future mechanics who will work on automated and electric vehicles or smart city infrastructure.

“These are going to be high-demand, high-paying, blue-collar careers in the near future and having a school right next to a test track facility would open doors for those students that might not exist anywhere else in New England,” Jackson said.

While this type of technology may seem futuristic, Jackson said that many municipalities are already adding smart features to their infrastructure with the expectation that more vehicles will be able to tap into the technology in the future to improve roadway efficiency and safety.

Examples include traffic signals that can communicate with cars as stop lights turn red to ensure all cars stop, vehicles that can communicate with each other to prevent impact, or even lights that turn off when cars are not on the road.

“A lot of municipalities as they start deploying these technologies, they’re going to need a spot to be able to go, to get trained and understand how to work on this technology. It’s really and truly new to everybody. So the thought of a spot where people can come and learn about the technology and actually put hands on the technology is really the driving force,” Jackson said.

For Jackson and Cortese, improving safety is a key component of their work.

According to the Connecticut Department of transportation, 176 people have died in Connecticut from traffic-related deaths in 2022, a 43 percent increase from this time last year.

In the first four months of 2022, the Connecticut Crash Data Repository recorded 9,482 crashes, 68 percent of which resulted in possible or suspected injuries. A total of 1,837 crashes involved distracted drivers and 1,063 involved drivers operating their vehicles under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

“Humans are really bad at driving cars. They’re distracted; they drive impaired; they cause crashes. So there’s a trend to move toward vehicles that basically prevent you from being involved in a crash,” Jackson said.

Jackson said that while many have “latched on” to the idea of self-driving cars, fully autonomous vehicles are decades away. However, there is technology currently available and in development to improve safety that Jackson and Cortese hope Spectrum Park will innovate and test.

“[Self-driving cars are] not necessarily the full goal of the center itself,” Jackson said. “The way that we’re looking at this is … what can we do as interim steps to get to that point and what can we do to improve transportation safety and prevent people from being killed in car crashes?”

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