“We’re ahead of everybody,” Gov. John Kasich told me just after I attended the latest legislative briefing on self-driving vehicles. His effort to convert the Rust Belt state into a hotbed of investment in connected technology recently spawned an executive order creating “Drive Ohio,” the latest initiative to keep Ohio’s transportation profile state-of-the-art.

History records several pretenders to the title of motor car inventor among Americans, Germans, Belgians, Swiss, Austrians and Frenchmen who designed pieces of the first self-powered vehicles. It is relatively unchallenged, however, that Ohio is credited with the first automobile accident in 1891. New connected and driverless technology promises to atone for initiating this trend by lowering crash statistics substantially and to implement other transformational changes to the landscape and lifestyle of the early 21st century.

The Ohio governor and the state’s legislative branch see a huge opportunity to convert the state’s second-place ranking among the 50 states for auto-related businesses, along with its first-place ranking for engine- and transmission-building, into a top seed in the race to bring in billions of technology investment dollars. Drive Ohio is but the latest thrust, and likely represents an inflection point in the effort to allow all Ohio public and private partners to offer expedited service to out-of-state collaborators.

Launched Jan. 18, the executive order combines four existing projects that total 164 miles of test-driving, including a peak-traffic shoulder lane to Columbus’s John Glenn International Airport and a stretch of I-90 along the top of the state (specifically for experiencing lake-effect snow). By bringing together developers of advanced mobility-technology and those responsible for building infrastructure, Drive Ohio provides a one-stop government shop for companies that want to set up a partnership with any existing projects.

Even prior to this executive order, the state has been busy teeing up an effort to attract production of the next generation of vehicles through both funding and facilities. The U.S. Department of Transportation awarded Columbus a large “Smart Cities Challenge” grant. Driverless vehicles – including semis using technology developed by Otto, a connected-vehicle trucking division of Uber – have been tested on a 35-mile strip of four-lane highway from the edge of Columbus to East Liberty for over a year. The Transportation Research Center (TRC); the Ohio State University; and Easton Town Center – a world-class shopping mall that hosts 25 million visitors annually – are all preparing to make history. The 241-mile Ohio Turnpike is already fitted end-to-end with fiber optic cable, and sensors will be implanted along a 60-mile stretch as well. It alone hosts a billion traveled miles and 11 million commercial truck trips annually.

East Liberty is the nearest town to the TRC. The TRC is the largest multi-user automotive proving-ground for drivers and vehicles in North America – a “gearhead nirvana,” according to The Columbus Dispatch. Nestled in a rural setting of 4,500 acres adjacent to the Honda Motor Company manufacturing facility and a plethora of automotive parts-suppliers, TRC is also the testing facility used by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Vehicle Research and Test Center, the federal vehicle test-laboratory for the nation.

A year ago, the TRC announced a $45 million, 540-acre expansion with funding from Ohio State University, JobsOhio and the state to create the Smart Mobility Advanced Research and Test (SMART) Center. This new facility will simulate different network connectivity and other infrastructure, varying climatic conditions indoors and outdoors, crashes and several levels of traffic conditions. It will have a 12-lane intersection and a test platform wider than 50 highway lanes.

Since Michigan and Pennsylvania have joined Ohio to form the Smart Belt Coalition, two more of the nation’s designated top automotive proving-grounds will be brought on board: the City of Pittsburgh and the Thomas D. Larson Pennsylvania Transportation Institute, and Michigan’s American Center for Mobility (ACM) at Willow Run. Carnegie-Mellon University will join the academic powerhouses at Ohio State and the University of Michigan. The transportation departments and turnpike commissions of all three states will be added to the effort.

Even though driving a truck is the most popular job in Ohio, as it is in many states, trucking trade associations project the expected shortage to reach more than 174,000 drivers nationally by 2026 if current trends hold. Nevertheless, at the legislative committee hearing, it was axiomatic that one of the lawmakers would declare that as any legislation moves forward, she would add a provision that requires a driver to be present in every truck, no matter what level of sophisticated autonomy engineers can develop.

This should provide an interesting debate on public policy as the state government continues to profess its desire to be a critical part of the nation’s transportation future. Also coming soon are more conversations about vehicle insurance and cybersecurity of the connected software. I am guessing that none of these collateral issues will be a deal-breaker for this new world of transportation.




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