Policy change could mean federal funds for auto research at Ohio site

An Ohio automotive research facility could be in line for federal funding after the U.S. Department of Transportation recently changed a policy potentially locking it out of federal grants to study automated vehicles.

The Transportation Research Center, located in East Liberty, has served for decades as a 4,500-acre research site where manufacturers and engineers test prototypes of the newest sports cars, motorcycles and trucks long before they’re unveiled to the public.

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The Obama Administration had designated 10 sites across the U.S. as “Automated Vehicle Proving Grounds” that were eligible for federal testing grants. But the TRC was left off that list, said Brett Roubinek, president and CEO of the TRC. Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Transportation released a new automated vehicle policy that rescinded the previous designation of 10 sites.

The definition of automated vehicles has changed significantly over the years, but Roubinek said the TRC has been doing that kind of work since it was founded, so it’s not clear why the facility was left off the list.

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“The Department does not intend to pick winners and losers or to favor particular automated vehicle proving grounds over others,” the new policy states. “Therefore, the Department no longer recognizes the designations of ten Automated Vehicle Proving Grounds as announced on January 19, 2017. The Department has taken no actions to direct any Federal benefits or support to those ten locations on the basis of these designations, and these designations will have no effect — positive or negative — going forward on any decisions the Department may make regarding Federal support or recognition of research, pilot or demonstration projects, or other developmental activities related to automated vehicle technologies.”

In a news release, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman said the new policy will level the playing field when sites compete for federal funding.

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“It’s in our shared interest to work together to create the safest, most effective AV policies that promote American industry and protect human life,” Portman said. “I am confident that there is no better place to find a partner in this mission than the Transportation Research Center in East Liberty.”

Earlier this year, the News-Sun reported the TRC broke ground on a $45 million project expected to boost business at the site and help make Ohio a hub for autonomous vehicle research and testing.

The first phase of the SMART Center will include a high-speed intersection, a six-lane road long enough to allow testing on fully-loaded commercial vehicles, roundabouts and an additional 10,000 square-foot complex with room for a garage and office space. The new facilities will allow automakers and researchers to test vehicles in numerous scenarios the vehicles may face on public roads.

A bipartisan group of Ohio lawmakers from both the House and Senate sent a letter to the DOT in July arguing the previous policy put the TRC at a competitive disadvantage and asked for its inclusion if the list of sites were expanded. The initial designation of 10 sites wasn’t tied to any funding, Roubinek said. But when President Trump’s most recent budget was released earlier this year, it set aside about $20 million for sites designated as “automated vehicle proving grounds.”

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Additional dollars will likely be available in the form of research and demonstration grants, and the policy change will give several Ohio projects a better opportunity to obtain funding, Roubinek said. Along with the TRC, 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.

“With the approach that has been taken in Ohio, I think there’s going to be a broader opportunity,” Roubinek said of potential funding for various projects.

Jim Jordan, R-Urbana, took the lead on the effort to push for the policy change. Along with Jordan and Portman, Democrats including Sen. Sherrod Brown and Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Toledo, sought the change and signed onto the letter.

The Springfield News-Sun will continue to provide unmatched coverage of the auto industry and its impact on Clark and Champaign Counties. For this story, the paper gathered information on how a policy change at the U.S. Department of Transportation could provide access to federal research grants to an automotive research center in Ohio.

4,500 — acres of road courses at TRC

1962 — Year the TRC was established

$20 million — Potential funding set aside

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