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The Transportation Research Center’s new SMARTCenter automated-vehicle test facility has a 6-lane intersection with a 1.2-mile straightaway that enables simulation of complex high-speed traffic situations. (TRC)

New SMARTCenter opens as North America’s largest AV test facility

As notions advance regarding the evolving needs and requirements of automated-vehicle (AV) testing, there’s a concurrent focus on the capabilities available from the world’s comparatively meager number of suitable test facilities. Physical testing of AVs—and vehicles with advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS)—in controlled environments is crucial, but demand for independent testing capacity continues to swell.

Joining the ranks of new or re-purposing AV test sites is central Ohio’s Transportation Research Center (TRC) with the mid-July inauguration of its SMARTCenter (Smart Mobility Advanced Research Test Center), a dedicated 540-acre AV and connected-vehicle test area within the immense 4,500-acre TRC proving grounds. Brett Roubinek, TRC president and CEO, said the new SMARTCenter is the largest dedicated AV testing facility in North America.

Long connected in transportation research with Ohio State University and with American Honda, whose East Liberty assembly plant is in clear view from the new SMARTCenter grounds, TRC’s main facility has road courses, and expansive vehicle-dynamics area, wooded trails and what remains its centerpiece, a 7.5-mile (12-km) high-speed oval test track. For 45 years, TRC has facilitated safety, emissions, performance and durability testing of nearly every conceivable type of wheeled vehicle. All this, said, David Williams, TRC chairman of the board dean of Ohio State’s engineering college, brings “more expertise on autonomous vehicles than anywhere else in the country.”

Roubinek said the SMARTCenter’s initial focus areas are on testing simulation, working with global AV safety consortia, driver “handoff” practices for SAE Level 3 autonomy and development of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

$45-million first phase
The initial phase of construction and development marked by the SMARTCenter inauguration represents a $45-million investment from the state of Ohio, Ohio State University and JobsOhio. Phase 1 of the SMARTCenter will be complete by the end of 2019 and includes:

  • An advanced, 6-lane signalized intersection with a 1.2-mile (1.9-km) straight that TRC said is the longest in the industry, allowing high-speed maneuvers involving the intersection that boasts “multiple traffic detection systems and advanced traffic-control architecture.”
  • An “urban network” area comprised of diverse roadways and intersections, including a circular vehicle-dynamics area intended for lower-speed testing of a variety of situations that include roundabouts and other unique traffic situations.
  • A specially-constructed “black lake” asphalt vehicle-dynamics area
  • A control center for testing control and coordination, as well as office and garage space
  • More than 18.5 lane-miles of pavement and nearly four miles of underground conduits

For now, the SMARTCenter has installed Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC) and high-speed wireless communications to cover the site—but Joshua Every, TRC’s director, advanced mobility, told SAE that TRC understands the evolving nature of vehicle-to-everything (V2X) communications protocols and said the facility is prepared to support whatever customers need via its installed “backbone” of fiber-optic communications.

Every said DSRC currently is actively integrated at the new SMARTCenter and the facility will run cellular vehicle-to-everything (CV2X), while bringing in 5G cellular communications infrastructure “as a continuing development. Our business model is built around servicing our customers’ needs.”

More to come
A second phase for TRC’s SMARTCenter will bring an indoor testing lab equipped to physically create harsh driving environments, particularly winter conditions. And a final phase will bring a 3.2-mile (5.1-km) highway-driving loop that introduces on- and off-ramps and other typical highway situations.

Roubinek told SAE that the SMARTCenter site will not be certified as a “designated” AV proving grounds by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). In a widely misunderstood action, the DOT de-certified 10 U.S. AV testing facilities in October of 2018 as part of its “Preparing for the Future of Transportation: Automated Vehicles 3.0” guidelines that controversially ceded oversight of AV testing to private developers such as automakers, suppliers and tech companies.

He added that although there are various industry interests that would like to see DOT’s “designated” AV proving grounds status revived, the elimination of DOT-designated status in reality removed many restrictions on obtaining federal funding and created “a level playing field” for all facilities. He added that TRC and the SMARTCenter currently are applying for a $10-million federal grant and there were some than 70 applicants vying for a total of $60 million in grants at the time of the SMARTCenter’s opening.

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