The robot rolls forward at a relatively slow speed into the intersection, programed to ignore the red light, and right into the path of an oncoming car. The car’s low-level autonomy kicks in and the driver is assisted in avoiding a crash with the robot, which is surrounded by padding so that it has the appearance of a vehicle.
Back in the control room the entire scenario is monitored.
This is a small part of what can be done at the new TRC Smart Center. The building housing the control center also has bays for outfitting test vehicles with equipment, some of which was on display at Wednesday’s ribbon cutting ceremony celebrating the official opening of the facility.
The other part of the facility is the outdoor six-lane configurable intersection, complete with sensors in the pavement as well as lidar, radar, cameras and 5G capability to facilitate communication to and from the test vehicles.
It was about a year ago to the day ground was broken on the site. Then Governor John Kasich was present to launch the program. Kasich was not there Wednesday, instead Lt. Governor Jon Husted made remarks before the ribbon was cut.
“There’s going to be some amazing innovations that will go on here that will affect the lives of everybody in the world,” said Husted.
After the speeches and the thank yous were shared, a demonstration was held; the same one as described above.
It was over in a flash and if you didn’t know what to look for you might have missed it in a blink of an eye. That’s how fast something can happen on the roads, and why human error is often cited as the cause of accidents.
State leaders want to reduce the number of those accidents and are looking to machines to protect us seemingly from ourselves.
“What happens here, literally will save people’s lives and will affect everybody in the world because the driving technologies that will be on you showroom floor in the form of an automobile are going to be tested right here,” said Husted.
And not just on the showroom floor, but in the roads and at the intersections where we drive.
Director of the Ohio Department of Transportation Jack Marchbanks was also on hand Wednesday.
“It is quite impressive and what I can say as someone who’s been around transportation for over two decades, that the future is finally here,” said Marchbanks.
The sensors in the pavement that are being used in testing, and the other technologies the facility is using are all tried and tested; Dean of Engineering for the Ohio State University, and Chairman of the TRC Board, David B. Williams says that is intentional because what they use here must be compatible with what is commercially available to deploy in the real world.
Still, the roadways are not ready for autonomous vehicles, though not for a lack of advancement in the field.
“There’s so much politics and policy and law and insurance involved in the development of smart technology and higher-level autonomous vehicles, that it’s not the technology that’s limiting us in deploying it on our roads it is those particular issues that I mentioned,” said Williams.
Despite this, Williams says the U.S. is not falling behind other countries who already allow higher levels of autonomous vehicles on their roads.
Still, there is a sense of inevitability with autonomous vehicles that is putting pressure on both federal and state lawmakers to begin developing guidelines and rules to take advantage of potential efficiencies.
Some lawmakers are open to exploring the possibilities, like State Senator Stephanie Kunze.
“We obviously are putting the safety of our constituents and our citizens and our communities first and foremost. But I also think that that doesn’t mean that we just say, ‘No’ to everything that comes along,” said Kunze.
According to Williams, some of the first testing that could be undertaken at the new facility involved self-driving shipping trucks.
He described a scenario in which they could have a group of trucks get up to 60 miles per hour and then put a red light in front of them to see how they would react as a group.
Williams says, understanding how large self-driving vehicles respond to sudden changes will be crucial before they attempt to deploy new technology on the connected corridor just outside the TRC on US 33.