$45M autonomous vehicle testing center opens

Logan County facility is wrapped in secrecy and security.

Everything about the intersection at the new autonomous vehicle testing center looks ordinary — asphalt, traffic lights, road signs, two sedans, an SUV and a bus — until a fake car wrapped in foam and canvas runs a red light and nearly gets t-boned by a speeding Tesla.

The Tesla automatically brakes, swerves and avoids a collision.

The 20-second demonstration was part of a grand opening event Wednesday to show off a new SMART Center, a 540-acre autonomous vehicle test site on the grounds of the 4,500-acre Transportation Research Center.

The $45 million SMART Center includes a 1.2 mile, six-lane road with traffic signals and an intersection where automakers, suppliers and technology companies can test their vehicles and equipment before deploying to the public roads.

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“This is where every company in the world should want to have a presence because there are going to be some amazing innovations that go on here that will affect the lives of everybody in the world,” said Lt. Gov. Jon Husted. The center will contribute to road safety and position Ohio as a leader in autonomous vehicle research and development, he said, noting that 94 percent of crashes are due to human error.

Funding for the project came from Ohio State University, the state of Ohio and JobsOhio.

It’s the latest addition to the Transportation Research Center, a cutting-edge, high-tech facility wrapped in secrecy and security in the hills of Logan County. The TRC has a 7.5 mile high-speed oval test track and a 50-acre vehicle dynamics area. Vehicles are tested for durability, emissions, noise, safety, performance, fuel efficiency and more.

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The SMART Center puts Ohio in the race to be on the cutting edge of technology that promises to change how people and products move. Other proving grounds such as M City at the University of Michigan, which tests autonomous vehicles in an urban setting, don’t have the size and scope that TRC does, said Joshua Every, TRC Director of Advanced Mobility.

“We are substantially larger. We are built to be able to run tests at full speed. We are going to be able to run tests on full size city blocks and not just do tests on passenger cars but on fully loaded tractor trailers,” Every said. “The other advantage we have is everything around us. We are a 540 acre site surrounded by a 4,500 acre comprehensive proving ground. As the vehicle development cycle speeds up and as these technologies get involved more production vehicles, manufacturers want that one stop shop.”

The SMARTCenter test intersection is the first phase. For Phase 2, TRC has plans to build a highway track with on and off ramps and indoor, year-round testing area that simulates snow and ice conditions, Every said.

TRC Board Chairman David Williams, dean of the Ohio State University engineering college, said as the climate changes, automakers are looking to testing locations that offer more consistent snow and ice, such as Canada and southern New Zealand.

The grand opening for phase one came on the 45-year anniversary of Gov. James Rhodes announcing plans for the TRC. Husted said that some people may have thought buying a large tract of land in East Liberty was a foolish idea but the TRC evolved into technology and engineering gem.

“This facility is pretty special and now it’s up to the rest of us who work in economic development to try to help make the most of it,” Husted said. “One of the biggest issues for this is this an amazing place but like a lot of things in Ohio we don’t brag very much. We got to brag about this place and tell the rest of the world.”

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