- By Matt Sanctis Staff Writer
The Transportation Research Center just outside East Liberty wants to expand rapidly and attract new customers as state leaders and analysts say the region has quickly become known as an emerging center for high-tech automotive research.
The center has served for decades as a 4,500-acre playground where manufacturers and engineers could test prototypes of the newest sports cars, motorcycles and trucks long before they’re ever unveiled for the public.
The proving grounds has long kept a low profile, despite serving more than 1,000 customers and nearly every automaker — until now.
“Our simple goal is to double the business in five years,” said Mark-Tami Hotta, Transportation Research Center president and CEO. “But quite frankly the sky is the limit.”
Businesses like Honda — which has 1,400 workers from Clark and Champaign counties — and state and federal agencies are investing millions into Ohio as the region tries to position itself as a home for transportation manufacturing and research. Along with investment ramping up at the TRC, analysts and state leaders pointed to other multi-million projects along U.S. 33, the Ohio Turnpike and in Columbus.
It’s too early to say exactly what impact the industry could have in places like Clark County, said Horton Hobbs, vice president of economic development for the Chamber of Greater Springfield. But Springfield and Urbana have deep ties to manufacturing and the auto industry, including serving as a home to several parts manufacturing firms.
“As Honda grows, so, too, does the business through the supply chain,” Hobbs said. “For all the competitive advantages of location and workforce, Clark County remains a key location for the suppliers to Honda. We would expect that to continue, but we have to work very hard to maintain a competitive environment and develop a workforce that’s consistently able to respond to the needs of those suppliers.”
Ohio Gov. John Kasich highlighted the industry in his State of the State address earlier this year, arguing Ohio has the tools needed to attract jobs and potentially save lives on the road.
“We have such a great opportunity to create new things here in the 21st Century,” Kasich said. “If we come up with these ideas, they can change our world in the very near future.”
Millions pouring into the region
Recent investments in Ohio in autonomous vehicles and transportation include:
• The Transportation Research Center is investing millions to improve both its capabilities and facilities to attract more business. That includes an initial $45 million investment from the state and Ohio State University for an expansion of the the center’s 540-acre SMART Center, a state-of-the-art hub for autonomous and connected vehicle research. The center also plans to invest an additional $8 million for business infrastructure and safety improvements. And Ohio State University has pledged about $24 million to hire faculty and staff to conduct research.
• Honda announced earlier this year it will invest $124 million to build a high-tech wind tunnel at the TRC. The project is expected to be operational by 2020. The automaker announced earlier this month it plans to introduce vehicles capable of autonomous driving on the highway by 2020 and a model that’s almost fully autonomous by 2025. Although the specific impact on the region isn’t clear, company officials pointed out Ohio is home to manufacturing and research and development facilities for the automaker.
• Ohio is also investing $15 million in a Smart Mobility Corridor, a stretch of U.S. 33 between Dublin and East Liberty being lined with fiber optic cable that can collect data on autonomous and connected vehicles. The Ohio Turnpike between Youngstown and Toledo is also expected to become a testing ground for similar research, and the latest state budget includes funding for additional smart highway projects on I-270 in Columbus and I-90 in northeast Ohio.
• Columbus competed with more than 70 other cities across the U.S., winning the Smart City Challenge in 2016. The project, which is intended to turn Columbus into a testing ground for transportation technology, drew an initial investment of $50 million, including a $40 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation and an additional $10 million from Vulcan Inc. The city will also match that initial investment with more than $360 million in pledges from public and private sector partners, according to information from the city.
A key asset
The Transportation Research Center began construction in the late 1960s to attract foreign automakers and new jobs to the state, a goal that was accomplished when Honda established a manufacturing facility nearby in the mid-1970s. But state lawmakers and other partners now see the TRC as a key asset to attract investment and even more high-tech auto research to the state.
Honda purchased the land the center sits on from the state in 1988, although the TRC still operates as a nonprofit managed by Ohio State University. The site operates 24 hours a day throughout the year and is the largest independent proving ground in the U.S.
It’s also the home to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s only federal vehicle research and test center. The site includes a 7.5-mile test track, a bus and truck durability course, and a variety of other programs designed to test everything from brakes to a vehicle’s durability.
The site is increasingly seen as a critical asset that can be used to attract additional investment, state officials and research center leaders said, and ensure technologies are safe before they move onto the next step on Ohio’s highways. The challenge will be attracting new clients while continuing to provide the same confidential services the site has provided to its existing clients for years, Hotta said.
With the TRC, Ohio has all the pieces needed to develop and test new technologies and then make sure they work in real-life situations, said Randy Cole, executive director of the Ohio Turnpike and Infrastructure Commission.
Research institutions like Ohio State might conduct the initial research, for example, before a technology moves on to a secure proving grounds like the Transportation Research Center.
Once the technology is proven safe, it could move onto connected highways like U.S. 33 or the Ohio Turnpike, Cole said. The turnpike is already outfitted with 241 miles of fiber optic cable and is now in the process of installing equipment that allows vehicles to communicate with transportation infrastructure.
The turnpike will likely focus on researching ways to move freight more efficiently. The turnpike is a major freight corridor between the East Coast and the Midwest, with about 12 million trips and a billion miles of freight shipped annually, Cole said.
“We’re putting spigots on the pipe we already have,” Cole said.
About two years ago, the TRC collaborated with about four other partners for various projects, Hotta said. That number is now closer to 40 and three were added in the past month.
Beyond the initial $45 million investment for autonomous research, the research center is investing an additional $8 million in infrastructure upgrades, said Tim Leckey, TRC chief financial officer.
That will include a TRC Innovation Center with space for Ohio State laboratories, class rooms and distance learning and other office space. It will also include a customer residential building with workshops, office and conference space, and upgrades in the site’s safety systems.
The $45 million investment is only the first of three planned phases of improvements at the TRC, Leckey said. A second phase will include an indoor facility that will provide customers year-round testing in conditions like snow, ice and fog.
A third phase will include a six-lane, high-speed highway that will allow the center to test technologies like truck platooning. That involves several commercial trucks following each other closely at a constant speed to provide better fuel efficiency and safety.
There are other proving grounds throughout the U.S., but the goal at the TRC is to find services that aren’t offered elsewhere to attract clients to Ohio.
“The things they don’t do, they’re going to be our customer,” Hotta said.
On the right path
Despite the state’s investments, a handful of states like California are ahead of Ohio, said Egil Juliussen, director of research and principal auto analyst for IHS Markit.
California, for example, has an edge because of high-tech work being done in Silicon Valley, he said. But developments like winning the Smart City Challenge and investments in fiber optic cable along the state highways is putting Ohio on the right path to be near the top of the pack, he said.
Along with autonomous vehicles, the state is also conducting research on connected vehicles, which can communicate either with other vehicles or even infrastructure to improve safety and fuel efficiency.
“Many states are eyeing this and want to get involved in the leading edge,” Juliussen said. “Ohio is doing the right thing to be up there among the leaders.”
Ohio is also collaborating with Michigan and Pennsylvania to form a Smart Belt Coalition, consisting of transportation agencies and academic institutions in all three states. The partnership will allow the states to share research and resources, allowing the region to be more competitive with other parts of the country when trying to attract investment and jobs in the emerging industry.
“I don’t see it as a race to the front,” Cole said. “Instead it’s more like Ohio is a key part of positioning this part of the country to be a part of this future as it happens.”
Honda is working on a variety of projects at its facilities in Ohio to improve vehicle safety and efficiency, and will be working closely with its partners in Ohio, said Frank Paluch, president of Honda R&D Americas.
“In North America, and here at our Ohio R&D Center, Honda is working on a broad range of technology themes toward our goal to create something truly new that advances mobility and makes people’s lives better, and we will be leveraging our relationships in the Smart Columbus and the U.S. 33 Smart Mobility Corridor initiatives to do just that,” Paluch said.
Juliussen pointed to a recent announcement by Wind River, a subsidiary of Intel Corporation. Just this month, Wind River announced a partnership with the Transportation Research Center, Ohio State and the city of Dublin, Ohio, to develop new self-driving and connected vehicle technologies.
“The Central Ohio region is an emerging hub for smart city and smart vehicle technologies, and our unique ensemble approach — uniting minds from academia, the public sector and the tech industry — can set a standard for how communities can innovate mobility and use the learnings to impact vehicle development and deployment best practices,” said Marques McCammon, general manager of Connected Vehicle Solutions at Wind River.
The state’s long history tied to the auto industry also gives Ohio an edge, said Michelle Krebs, an analyst for Autotrader.
“Ohio is in a good position to capitalize on the research and development dollars being invested in future mobility initiatives,” Krebs said. “It already has a strong automotive base with Fiat Chrysler’s Jeep complex near Toledo and Honda’s significant research, development and manufacturing operations around Marysville.”