Columbus, Ohio, region boosts smart mobility research

Ohio State University expects to test driverless cars on campus next year

The 11-county region that includes Columbus, Ohio, is pushing ahead with smart city tech research, including funding focused heavily on smart mobility and driverless vehicle testing.

Last month, the State of Ohio and Ohio State University (OSU), based in Columbus, announced $45 million in funds for a new 540-acre Smart Mobility Advanced Research and Test Center, as an expansion of an existing 4,500-acre Transportation Research Center (TRC).

Automated vehicles and related technology will be tested at the center in a closed and secure real-world setting before they get deployed on public roads. Plans call for a 12-lane intersection for testing as well as for wireless networks that operate in different mobile environments, including cities, rural areas and neighborhoods. A later phase calls for building an indoor winter weather testing facility, which would require added funds.

The U.S. Department of Transportation last month also designated 10 other new locations nationwide that will act as proving grounds for self-driving vehicles.

Last June, the city of Columbus won $40 million from the DOT in a Smart City Challenge. The DOT grant was matched by $10 million from Vulcan Inc. and $90 million that the city raised from private partners.

Also in the 11-county region, the cities of Dublin, Marysville and Union County are working to create a Smart Mobility Corridor along a 28-mile section of U.S. Route 33.

The region benefits from proximity to OSU's Center for Automotive Research and its College of Engineering in Columbus as well as Honda's North America operations, OSU officials said. A 30-mile portion of the Ohio Turnpike in the region will also be used to develop smart mobility technology, including smart sensors for tollgates and parking.

One focus of the mobility research will be on developing universal standards for wireless communications between vehicles and sensors on traffic signals, highway lanes and other road infrastructure, said David Williams, dean of the OSU College of Engineering and a board member of the TRC.

"At this moment, policy and standards and regulations are far behind" smart mobility technology, Williams said in an interview. "So far, we're just touching the tip of the iceberg with what needs to be studied...and whether the standards need to be national or global. These issues need to be managed pretty quickly."

In addition to testing terrestrial autonomous vehicles like trucks and cars on highways, testing will include drones and trucks used on construction sites and on farms, he said.

Williams said some driverless experiments are expected to occur on the OSU campus starting in mid-2018. The OSU campus is "a city of 110,000 people" where electric Honda vehicles can provide a testbed on roadways closed to other outside vehicles, he said.

Carla Bailo, OSU assistant vice president for mobility research, said the university expects to marry sound city and regional planning principles with smart tech innovations and policies. One focus will be on helping the Linden community, a low-income neighborhood in Columbus, with autonomous shuttles to help residents gain access to jobs and health care.

"A smart city uses data and technology to improve people's lives," Bailo said. "If you're not improving lives, then you're deploying technology and data for the fun of it."

OSU faculty from urban planning and regional analysis disciplines were involved in winning the DOT Smart City Challenge, she said. "Their role is primarily to determine the public benefit as we deploy technology and gather and analyze data," she said. "Behaviorial scientists, public policy and College of Law are all involved. It is very holistic."

OSU combines computer engineering and city and regional planning, as well as landscape and architecture, within the single entity of its College of Engineering. The college has hired 40 faculty and staff in data analytics in the past two years to help promote connections across academic disciplines, Williams said.

"Data is of no use unless you store it and mine it and apply it in research, and ultimately put it to use back on the road," he said.

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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