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Ohio Considers Plans for Autonomous Vehicle Testing Facilities

Ohio’s private and public institutions have been aggressively positioning the state as a ready testbed for autonomous and connected vehicles, arguing the potential economics are too important to ignore.

(TNS) -- An ambitious plan to build a 500-acre specialty testing site in East Liberty, Ohio, for driverless cars and commercial trucks could go a long way toward cementing Ohio’s status as a key location for developing and proving the technology that looks to be a lock for the future of the automotive industry.

The Transportation Research Center, a sprawling independent proving grounds that shares a border with Honda Motor’s Ohio operations, hopes to finish the first phase of the $100-million project by the end of next summer.

“We’ve got projects we’re not prepared to announce yet, but we’ve secured verbally commitments for about a third of the funding,” said Mark-Tami Hotta, president and chief executive officer of the center. “We’re working with customers and partners to figure out how we make the rest happen.”

Ohio’s private and public institutions have been aggressively positioning the state as a ready testbed for autonomous and connected vehicles, arguing the potential economics are too important to ignore. Beyond the implications for the state’s automakers and parts suppliers, autonomous vehicle technology could have a significant effect on commercial trucking.

“It will be disruptive on the economic side,” said Randy Cole, executive director of the Ohio Turnpike. “It sounds scary, but it just means really big change. So many of the really big changes in the past have led to huge economic benefits. That’s what I think we’re on the forefront of here.”

Proponents say Ohio is uniquely situated to serve as a proving ground for self-driving and connected vehicles.

The state’s climate, topography, and mixture of urban and rural settings can give developers a varying test environments, while its location as a transportation hub makes the state a likely beneficiary of new technologies.

“The aim is that we’re going to be a hub for autonomous and connected vehicle research and development,” said Carla Bailo, assistant vice president, mobility research and business development at Ohio State University. “There’s no reason why we shouldn’t have that hub here in the Midwest instead of someplace else. We have a large number of automotive companies in the state, a large number of heavy truck companies in the state, and we can play a large role.”

Said Mr. Cole: “Proving the technology works where your customers are, where the freight is going to move, is a natural combination.”

State officials note that 60 percent of the nation’s population resides within 600 miles of Ohio, and some of the country’s busiest highways slice across the state.

Though much of the public’s focus has been on self-driving cars, experts say autonomous technologies could have major implications on the commercial trucking industry.

IHS, for example, has projected annual sales of self-driving trucks could reach 60,000 by 2035. Though that’s still far away, trucking firms and drivers are interested.

“It’s going to be a huge impact on the industry, so we obviously want to be part of the conversation. And we have been,” said Thomas Balzer, president and chief executive officer of the Ohio Trucking Association.

One of the first benefits, Mr. Balzer said, is safety. Commercial trucks already are using many of the same crash-avoidance technologies found on passenger cars. Having even more on-board safety systems and communications systems that can talk with other vehicles and with roadside signs or fixtures are seen as a major benefit.

But officials also say significant fuel savings could be realized with systems like platooning, in which a lead truck is electronically tethered to a trailing truck at highway speeds.

The lead truck effectively would control the trailing truck as long as the system is engaged.

Estimates on just how much fuel could be saved are varied, but testing has shown a real difference.

Peloton Technology, one of the companies leading development of platooning technology, has been in discussions with turnpike officials and could test on the toll road next spring.

Profession in danger?

From a labor perspective, one of the chief concerns is what happens to professional truck drivers if the number of commercial vehicles that can drive themselves increases.

According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are about 72,000 heavy-truck drivers in Ohio and 51,000 in Michigan, making the industry an important one in both states.

At this point, industry officials and observers are downplaying those concerns.

“I think that any young truck drivers out there who are just getting into the profession still have a long career ahead of them, without competing with software for a job,” Seth Clevenger, who is the technology editor at Transport Topics, noted on a recent conference call hosted by the advisory firm Stifel.

“In fact, truck automation could actually make the job easier, safer, and more appealing, I think — especially among the younger generation, which might be more interested in new technologies,” Mr. Clevenger added.

Others have largely shared this view, saying at least in the near to midterm, autonomous truck operations are likely to be confined to long highway hauls, while human drivers will still drive into and out of delivery docks and in city traffic.

“It might work from a Point A to Point B, but you still have a lot of things that people need to do,” said Ed Nagle, who is the owner of Nagle Trucking in Walbridge. “The trailer needs to be loaded, backed in, pulled into a dock, and unloaded on the receiving end.”

Mr. Nagle, whose company specializes in temperature-controlled shipping, also has questions about the cost of autonomous trucks and how difficult it might be to convince those outside the industry.

“I think probably the greatest obstacle is going to be the general public’s acceptance of a driverless vehicle, let alone all these other considerations we in the industry have,” Mr. Nagle said.

To date, no widescale tests of commercial vehicles have taken place on the public roadways in Ohio. There was a high-profile visit by Walter Martin, a professional truck driver now with OttoMotto, an Uber-affiliate company, with a self-driving truck that is in development, though the visit was more of a pass-through than a dedicated test.

That could change soon, though.

Road to research

As part of its plan to encourage testing here, the Ohio Department of Transportation announced plans this month to equip a 35-mile stretch of U.S. Route 33 in central Ohio with high-capacity fiber-optic cable to link researchers and data from embedded and wireless sensors along the roadway.

While not specifically dedicated to commercial trucks, ODOT Chief Engineer Jim Barna said the project has caught the industry’s attention.

“The amount of interest from the tech company, the telecom companies, the trucking outfits, your small-package fleets, it’s amazing,” Mr. Barna said. “They’re ready now to test.”

It’s also in ODOT’s interest to foster the self-driving truck industry, Mr. Barna said, from the prospective of infrastructure.

“Traffic is still growing. We look at our system statewide, it costs so much money for us to add lanes. We see capacity enhancements through this technology. If we get connected vehicles, truck platooning, automation, we’ll be able to increase capacity on our existing footprint.”

Ohio is hardly the only state eager to get in on the game.

According to data compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures, eight states have enacted legislation specifically allowing autonomous cars. The most recent of those was Michigan, whose governor this month signed into law a package of bills that allows self-driving vehicles on all Michigan roadways and permits ride-sharing services to use self-driving cars.

The rules, widely seen as the most permissive in the nation, have already had an impact.

General Motors Co. announced Thursday it would immediately begin testing autonomous vehicles on Michigan’s public roads, expanding testing it had been doing at its own sites in the state. GM also confirmed the next generation of its autonomous test vehicles will be made at the company’s Orion Township plant in early 2017.

While Ohio has yet to take legislative action on self-driving vehicles, Gov. John Kasich has been a big cheerleader of making Ohio a key testing state, and the state has a number of other advantages.

The city of Columbus this year beat out more than 70 other U.S. cities to win the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge, which provides $40 million in funding toward developing a transportation system that incorporates self-driving and connected cars. Private industry has pledged another $100 million to Columbus’ efforts.

Having the Transportation Research Center near Columbus also is a major help, even without the upcoming project to build out an autonomous vehicle testing area. The center serves as the only testing site for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which regulates safety systems.

With the upcoming expansion, the center will be one of, if not the, premier testing site in the country for autonomous vehicles.

“The luxury we have is we can put in place a much bigger facility, and we also still have the rest of the track, so we have the high-speed oval and everything else we are doing work on today,” Mr. Hotta said. “Essentially we’ll be the only automated vehicle test facility within a larger proving ground in the country, and we’re independent. So we’re pretty excited about that.”

©2016 The Blade (Toledo, Ohio) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.