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State-of-the-Art Autonomous Vehicle Test Site Opens in Ohio

The new $45 million SMARTCenter opened at the Transportation Research Center in East Liberty, Ohio to test autonomous vehicle technologies. Planning for the facility began about five years ago.

Thanks in part to collaboration between the public and private sectors, central Ohio is now home to one of the largest contained testing sites for automated and connected vehicle technologies. 

That site is the $45 million SMARTCenter, located in East Liberty, Ohio. Opened last month, it is an addition to the existing Transportation Research Center (TRC) there, which is a non-profit entity that bills itself as "the largest independent vehicle test facility and proving ground in the U.S." 

Central Ohio will continue to be a leader in automotive testing, with the development of a new center designed for connected vehicle technologies. The new SMARTCenter covers 540 acres, and it includes the sort of replicated urban and rural environments needed to test not only autonomous vehicles but also intelligent infrastructure such as smart signaling and high-speed communications.

The TRC as a whole — spread across 4,500 acres — has been around since the early 1970s and has been a site for vehicle testing in areas like fuel economy, safety or vehicle durability.

“But the requirements for connected and autonomous vehicles are a little bit different, in that you need something that very closely replicates a city, or a town, or a rural area, including true kinds of streets, intersections, traffic signals and connected vehicle technology. Which is not something you typically have at a proving ground,” said Andrew Mathers, the TRC’s director of facilities.

These elements should be in a closed-course environment, said Mathers, pointing out that the facility also provides benefits like repeatability, testing safely and setting up "very edge-type cases" to prove it out before they are released on public roads.

Planning for the SMARTCenter began about five years ago. It’s funded by the Ohio Department of Transportation, Ohio State University and JobsOhio, a private nonprofit corporation charged with economic development in the state. Officials broke ground in July last year on the control building, which manages the test site and controls the signaling, as well as connected vehicle applications.

Phase I also includes an urban area, which is a mockup of a city setting with different types of roadways, intersections and roundabouts, which is still under construction and will be complete by the end of the year. There is also a high-speed intersection that spans six lanes and is 1.2 miles long.

The SMARTCenter fits neatly within the larger emerging transportation technology ecosystem already taking root in central Ohio. The Smart Mobility Corridor along U.S. Highway 33 is designed to test connected vehicle technologies, while the Ohio cities of Marysville and Columbus have both launched smart transportation projects. In 2016, Columbus was awarded a $40 million U.S. Department of Transportation Challenge grant to create a smart transportation system in which vehicles and roads communicate to make travel easier and safer. It also came with $10 million from the Paul G. Allen Foundation, with a goal of reducing greenhouse emissions and auto commutes.

The work at TRC and its SMARTCenter includes developing, proving and validating these technologies, said Mathers. But also, being part of a larger ecosystem of transportation testing attracts industry to the area and allows all of the disparate parts of the automotive network to grow as well.

“With the recent growth, we’ve recognized the need to have even more capabilities here at TRC,” said Mathers.

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.