SMARTCenter features a six lane high speed intersection. SMARTCenter opened July 10. | Photo credit: Courtesy of Bruce Hull.

The world of technology and transportation moves fast, and the Transportation Research Center is racing right along with it. 

A $45 million dollar autonomous and connected vehicle test site dubbed the Smart Mobility Advance Research Test Center opened this month at TRC in collaboration with the state, JobsOhio and Ohio State, with $25 million pledged from Ohio State. 

Dave Williams, dean of the College of Engineering and chair of the TRC board of directors, said it’s the largest known site of its kind in the country, giving Ohio State students and faculty the chance to help guide the development of these types of vehicles.  

“If there’s one thing that’s seizing the attention of every arm of transportation — that includes cars, buses, trains, trucks, aircraft, undersea vehicles — autonomy is the single word that describes the cutting edge of research in all of those areas,” Williams said.  

The SMARTCenter’s features include a control center, a six-lane, high-speed intersection, an urban network that consists of a series of intersections and roundabouts and a 22-and-a-half-acre vehicle dynamics area that can be used to create a variety of scenarios, Brett Roubinek, president and CEO of the TRC, said.

Because TRC serves stakeholders such as auto manufacturers, governmental agencies and technology companies that rely on a confidential environment, SMARTCenter will not be open to the public, Roubinek said.

Though autonomous vehicles were being tested at the TRC around 40 years ago, what constitutes as an autonomous vehicle today is very different, Roubinek said. 

“Back then those vehicles followed wires that were embedded in the pavement and it took a truck full of electronics and computers that helped them operate,” he said. “All of those packages are getting smaller now and actually can exist in a small vehicle or in the smaller mobility devices that we see people use, so I would say that [SMARTCenter] is really focused on the research and development of automated and connected technologies.”

Becoming connected means roadside units communicating traffic and weather information as well as vehicles communicating with each other, Roubinek said. Connecting each component of that “ecosystem” will be one of the biggest challenges, he said.

That’s not the only challenge to overcome before autonomous and connected vehicles can hit the road. Williams said that there are also questions surrounding law, policy and insurance. That means reconciling state and federal laws and deciding who is responsible when something goes wrong. 

“We will have to fundamentally change the law when the computer is driving and not the person,” he said. 

These legal and ethical questions mean work at the SMARTCenter extends beyond the College of Engineering. 

“This is more than just about engineering. This is about sociology and how consumers and we as people are going to adopt these technologies as they become available,” Roubinek said. “It touches all the way across the university.”

John Glenn College of Public Affairs and Moritz College of Law will both be involved in conversations around autonomous vehicles, Williams said. He added that though it may take a long time, he feels confident that the challenges can be overcome.

While the law is a concern, for both Roubinek and Williams, the ultimate goal is safety. 

“If we talk about accidents on the road, in excess of 90 percent of those incidents are created by driver error,” Roubinek said. “If we can develop either individual systems or whole vehicle systems that can eliminate that driver error, then we’re gonna be ahead of the game in getting towards zero accidents and zero fatalities.” 

Williams said there are 37,000 traffic-related deaths and 2 million injuries per year that could be eliminated with the help of automated and connected vehicles. 

“You do the economics what car deaths and injuries do to our society and if we could remove all of those — wow,” he said.