Driverless vehicles being tested at 4,500-acre Ohio site

The Transportation Research Center’s new test site simulates an urban network of three city blocks with roundabouts, intersections, pedestrians and bicyclists where companies can test their autonomous vehicle technology before rolling it out to the public.

It takes imagination to see it as a vibrant city since there are no buildings, trees or anything city-like.

Instead, it looks like a freshly paved parking area with access roads.

That’s by design, said TRC Chief Executive Brett Roubinek. The wide-open layout allows for maximum flexibility to test every imaginable scenario, he said.

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If they need simulated buildings, they can just drop in a shipping container. Tape is used to mark the pavement according to what the customer needs. TRC provides dummies — pedestrians, bicyclists, dogs and deer — to take part in testing. (TRC-provided dummies is attractive to clients, sparing them the need to bring their own.)

On a blustery November day, three engineers and two dummies put on a demonstration.

TRC Research and Development Engineer Blaine Ricketts lined up a gray sedan about 100 yards from “Kevin,” a $17,000 dummy on a bicycle in the car lane in the new testing area.

Credit: Laura Bischoff

Credit: Laura Bischoff

“We are doing an automatic emergency brake test where we’re traveling 20 miles per hour in the subject vehicle approaching a stationary bicycle target in the lane,” Ricketts said, sitting behind the wheel. “This is a way, as a building block to autonomous vehicle testing for vehicles that are out being manufactured today.”

The technology on the new model hybrid sedan senses Kevin and hits the brakes, stopping just behind the bicycle back tire and saving Kevin from a nasty collision.

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Ricketts runs the test again, this time with “Darek” — a kid-size dummy dressed in royal blue and black and standing in the crosswalk. Again, the car senses and brakes before colliding with Darek, a $10,000 dummy.

In a third test, Ricketts purposely overrides the automatic braking and plows into Darek, knocking him off his pedestal and to the pavement.

“Technology is kind of being developed at light speed. There are a number of stakeholders, including the public, when you start to look at the impact it’s going to have on all of our lives,” said Roubinek. “As regulations as well as the technology get rolled out to the public on the roads, they can take that technology with confidence that it’s been vetted and tested and verified here at TRC.”

The TRC is a 4,500-acre auto proving ground where clients, such as the federal government, auto makers and suppliers and technology companies, test their latest and greatest equipment, gear and technology. The cutting-edge, high-security facility in Logan County includes a 7.5 mile high-speed test track with parabolic curves, a crash test facility, an emissions testing lab, a 50-acre vehicle dynamics area and more.

In 1976, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration established its only vehicle research and test center at the TRC. The feds just extended the agreement with TRC for an additional 20 years.

The TRC land is owned by Honda Manufacturing of America but the facility is operated by TRC Inc., a non-profit.

The $45-million SMART Center is the latest addition to the TRC. The SMART Center sits on 540 acres and includes a control center, a 1.2 mile, six-lane road with traffic signals and an intersection, and the urban network testing area. A second, larger testing area with nearly 1-million square feet of pavement is under construction.

Related: $45M autonomous vehicle testing center opens

Other proving grounds such as M City at the University of Michigan, which tests autonomous vehicles in a 16-acre urban setting, don’t have the size and scope that TRC does.

“M City would fit into one of our retention ponds. That’s how large our facility is,” Roubinek said.

Roubinek said TRC has no peers because of its enormous breadth of services and facilities. “There are competitors in smaller niches but…we’re kind of the big dog when it comes to how comprehensive it is.”

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