The Transportation Research Center broke ground on a $45 million project Monday that is expected to boost business at the site and help make Ohio a hub for autonomous vehicle research and testing.
The TRC, 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 ever unveiled to the public. The project that kicked off Monday will develop a 540-acre SMART Center for autonomous vehicle research within the existing TRC grounds.
Ohio is still fighting an image as a Rust Belt state, said Ohio Gov. John Kasich. But the new project will draw jobs, investment and more high-tech research to Ohio, he said.
“We kind of have all the tools, we just need to market it,” Kasich said of the state’s high-tech industries.
The SMART Center will include several elements in the first phase, said Brett Roubinek, president and CEO of the TRC. The first phase 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 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. The site operates 24 hours a day and is the largest independent proving ground in the U.S.
“While this is a major step forward, this is also a window into the work we do each and every day for our clients,” said Brett Roubinek, president and CEO of the TRC.
The new facilities will allow automakers and researchers to test vehicles in numerous scenarios the vehicles may face on public roads. Construction is expected to take about 18 months although the project’s high-speed intersection could be ready for use as early as this fall, Roubinek said.
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Once completed, the SMART Center will be the largest facility of its kind in North America inside a proving grounds.
Several officials also noted the SMART Center will be tied to the US 33 Smart Mobility Corridor, a 35-mile 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 facility will also provide benefits to other entities, said Randy Moses, interim Senior Vice President for Research at Ohio State University. It will provide new options for research in various industries and new opportunities for students to gain job experience as they prepare to enter the auto industry or other fields, he said.
“The SMART Center represents the nest step in our longstanding partnership,” he said.
The Ohio Turnpike between Youngstown and Toledo is also expected to become a testing ground for similar research.
Roubinek said the groundwork for the facility was laid about five years ago, and since then the TRC’s staff has worked to secure funding for the project and worked with the organization’s customers to determine what features the SMART Center should offer. He said the TRC will need to be able to adapt quickly as technology changes and clients demand new services.
“In the end, it’s a complementary service we offer our clients,” he said.