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Local site could be selected for federal driverless car designation

When the Obama administration designated its first 10 pilot sites for testing of automated vehicle technologies in January 2017, a 4,500-acre facility in East Liberty was not on the list.

This week, five Republican lawmakers and a handful of state senators including Senate President Larry Obhof, R–Ashtabula, held a press conference on Capitol Hill with a united message: Rethink that decision.

“This is a premiere facility,” said Rep. Bob Gibbs, R–Lakeville, who like other Republicans, argued that many of the 10 picked in January “don’t even have a facility, don’t even have assets. It’s a wish list.”

RELATED: 5 things experts say about self-driving cars

The East Liberty–based Transportation Research Center, the largest independent automotive testing ground in the U.S., argues it’s ready to test automated vehicles. The Logan County site broke ground last week on a $45 million SmartCenter that is being billed as the world’s biggest self-driving-vehicle test track. When it’s finished, the center will consist more than 18 miles of paved road and give researchers, automakers and safety organizations real-world tools and experience before putting driverless cars on public streets.

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Ever since the Transportation Department bypassed the East Liberty site in January 2017, the Ohio delegation has been on a mission to convince Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to include Ohio on that list, bringing her to the site last April and sending two letters — one last year and one this week — urging her to add the East Liberty site to the list. Chao, said Rep. Jim Jordan, R–Urbana, has expressed some willingness to consider adding the East Liberty site. Jordan and Gibbs joined Reps. Bob Latta, R–Bowling Green, Warren Davidson, –-Troy and Bill Johnson, R–Marietta in speaking on behalf of the site Tuesday.

The Department of Transportation began seeking proposals for a pilot program to designate automated vehicle proving grounds in November 2016. The 10 designees were picked from more than 60 applicants with the East Liberty site among those applying. Transportation instead picked sites in Pennsylvania, Texas, Maryland, Michigan, two sites in California, Iowa, Wisconsin, Florida and North Carolina.

Proponents of picking the TRC say that adding the East Liberty site to the list would allow the facility to receive federal research funding for driverless vehicles. Those federal dollars would be helpful to TRC as it moves forward, said Brett Roubinek, president and CEO of TRC. The center applied for the designation in 2016 but did not receive it.

Gibbs said while two of the 10 sites had begun work testing automated vehicles, some that received the designation had no physical facilities to do so. “It was really just a Christmas list,” he said, adding “it’s really unfortunate what happened.”

“How we can have the premiere facility in the country that doesn’t get on the list of 10? It just makes no sense….we should be the captain of the ship, and we really are.”

“This is a pre-eminent free-marketing center,” said Davidson. “Only the government can disrupt that. The trouble is, they have.”

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