EAST LIBERTY, OHIO — Foam tires and quarter panels scatter across the Transportation Research Center’s new Smart Mobility Advanced Research Test Center intersection as the Tesla Model 3 and the unmanned foam car finish their low-speed game of chicken.
Neither vehicle veers from its lane because the technology designed to help avoid, or at least mitigate, the types of head-on collisions that researchers are simulating is switched off for the demonstration.
These are the types of crashes that researchers hope to avoid in the real world as they test automated and connected vehicles in the $45 million first phase of the SMARTCenter, a 540-acre proving ground — two-thirds the size of New York City’s Central Park — on TRC’s East Liberty campus in Logan County.
“These are the kind of things you don’t want to learn how your vehicle responds for the first time in the real world,” said Josh Every, director of the TRC’s Advanced Mobility Group. “We bring the unique systems that can make that happen in a very safe and repeatable way.”
The first piece opens Wednesday, a six-lane signaled intersection with legs of 0.5 miles and 1.2 miles, long enough for both passenger vehicles and heavy trucks to get up to speed.
A simulated urban area — outfitted with neighborhood streets and roundabouts and a 22-acre “asphalt lake,” for tests that can’t be conducted on roads — is expected to open before the end of the year. It also will have a control building, a 10,000-square-foot center that will include office space for researchers, along with space for vehicle preparation and calibration before being rolled onto the simulated streets.
TRC is the largest independent automotive testing ground in the country, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has its only test and research lab on its grounds. Its customers include vehicle manufacturers and suppliers, software companies and technology manufacturers, among others.
“We will be able to test all sorts of automated and connected technologies prior to them being rolled out onto roadways,” said Brett Roubinek, president of the center. “You need a contained test bed to work on developing these technologies as opposed to doing it on the roadways.”
Ohio State University invested $25 million in the project. The state pumped in $20 million more through JobsOhio and the Ohio Department of Transportation, and the TRC is seeking federal funding as well.
Lt. Gov. Jon Husted said the state’s interest is twofold: improving safety on its roads and attracting jobs.
Most large automakers have their own research and development operations, he said, but innovation often happens at smaller technology companies that will be able to use the testing facilities.
By building the center, it makes it easier for state leaders to sell the state to prospective technology companies that could locate research and development and prototype production in central Ohio, he said. They would have access to testing in rural, urban and suburban settings.
Future phases include a 400,000-square-foot indoor winter conditions testing facility and a 3.2-mile highway loop, but both are so far unfunded. Roubinek said the TRC started with the intersection and urban network because they were in the highest demand among customers.
The TRC has been testing autonomous vehicles for decades. It still has wires embedded in its pavement from the 1970s, Roubinek said, but the idea for the SMARTCenter dates to around 2012.
At the SMARTCenter, researchers will test vehicles that use communications equipment, cameras and other technology to observe and interact with their surroundings to avoid crashes. They will test everything from the existing driver-assist systems that come loaded with cars today to fully autonomous vehicles.
“We’re now asking the next generation of questions: how these vehicles see the world, how they respond to elements they’re going to encounter in a real-world way,” Every said.
For example, the TRC purchased the Tesla Model 3, which has cameras and sensors that are supposed to prevent drivers from colliding with other vehicles.
Its foam car is made up of labeled puzzle pieces, all lined with fine, light metal so that other vehicle communication systems can detect it, and mounted on a sled that can be controlled and maneuvered by software on a laptop. When it crashes, researchers can gather data from a GPS that can pinpoint location down to the size of a golf ball.
During a demonstration, Advanced Mobility Group senior engineer Alex Lybarger punches the Model 3 up to 26 mph as he attempts to rear-end the foam car, but the Tesla’s system stops it short, slamming on the brakes even though Lybarger’s foot isn’t on the pedal.
“It’s meant to save lives and reduce the impact of these crashes,” Lybarger said.