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New Autonomous Vehicle Test Track to Open in Metro Atlanta

The Curiosity Lab in Peachtree Corners will feature a 1.5-mile AV test track, complete with steep grades, curves and trees. City officials hope the track will attract economic development and business investments.

A new autonomous vehicle test facility is due to open in the Atlanta metro, positioning the southeast as a destination for the development of the emerging AV technology.

The Curiosity Lab in Peachtree Corners, Ga., is set to open its 1.5-mile test track next week, complete with public streets, steep grades and even mature shade trees. The facility, owned by the city, sits within a 500-acre office park, is free to use and offers insurance coverage for companies using the test track.

“We are helping those who test to de-risk a little bit,” said Betsy Plattenburg, executive director of the Curiosity Lab. “It’s an economic development investment by the city. And our goal is to bring companies to the city,” she added. “I would say, already, we’ve literally had hundreds of people who have come for a few hours a day, who have stayed overnight in our hotels.” 

There are roughly about 1,000 hotel rooms in the area. That and the ease of access are what officials say differentiates this AV test facility from others around the country.

“We own the road, the sidewalk and the right-of-way. So there’s only one governmental entity that anyone needs to go to for permission to test,” Plattenburg explained. “We can embed things in the road. We can stand things next to the roadway. We can fly drones under 400 feet. We have ‘smart poles’ along the way that we can hang any number of things on. We have the flexibility to allow for a lot of testing that might be hard to do, or might take a while to get permission to do in other places.”

The city of Peachtree Corners and industry partners, including the Georgia Automotive Manufacturers Association, Sprint and the Georgia Institute of Technology, have invested about $5 million into the Curiosity Lab, according to Plattenburg.  

Other test facilities like the newly opened SMARTCenter at the Transportation Research Center (TRC) in East Liberty, near Columbus, Ohio, point to deep ties to the automotive industry and long history in the state as its competitive edge. In the nearby city of Marysville, a connected vehicle project is underway which will link 27 traffic signals and install onboard devices in about 1,200 personal cars as well as public fleets. The project is part of a 35-mile “connected corridor” spearheaded by the Ohio Department of Transportation.

“When we talk about this for Marysville and when we talk about everything that’s going on, it’s about building on what we already have, in the area of automotive, automotive research and development,” said Terry Emery, city manager for Marysville.

The collaboration across local, county and state leaders has helped to shepherd through a range of technology projects, said Emery.

“It works because everyone has a vested interest,” Andrew Mathers, director of facilities at TRC, added during a recent interview with Government Technology in downtown Columbus last week. “Everyone can potentially see the benefits in attracting and retaining industry, talent, investment in the area, as a whole.” Another major AV test facilityGoMentum Station in Contra Costa County in the Bay Area near San Francisco, touts its relationship built with automotive research organizations, including the Toyota Research Institute and AAA, as well as its placement within its 2,100 acres of interference-free testing.

Peachtree Corners is a relatively new, 7-year-old city that is a north Atlanta suburb, home to 45,000 residents across 17 square miles. City officials point to economic development as a motivator behind the development of the Curiosity Lab, and its ability to attract outside companies wanting to use the facility.

“In a perfect world, would they relocate to the city of Peachtree Corners? Maybe so. But in the short term, if they’re here spending their money, then that’s a good thing,” said Plattenburg, who is also quick to point out the Lab’s easy entry point. “First and foremost, it’s not pay-to-play. We’re not charging to use it.”

“We really just want to provide this very cool technology sandbox, invite people in to bring in their own tech toys, and then watch what happens,” she added.

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.