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On Central Ohio Visit, Secretary Chao Tours The Future Of Transportation

Adora Namigadde
Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao toured the Transportation Research Center in East Liberty on Monday.

An hour northwest of Columbus, the 4500-acre Transportation Research Center in East Liberty is racing to develop the latest vehicle technologies. And Monday it welcomed an important visitor to show off its advancements: U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.

Chao, whose department heads the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Vehicle Testing and Research Center on the TRC's grounds, was invited by Sen. Rob Portman to tour the billion-dollar facility. She says this kind of work is vital in Ohio. 

"Eleven percent of Ohio's workforce is employed in auto-related jobs," Chao says. "And this center we are in, the Transportation Research Center, the Vehicle Testing Center are all part of the future."

Chao says the federal government is looking for ways to fund infrastructure development, and that a legislative package should be out soon. 

"We hope to have a package out to Congress, probably by summer or this fall," Chao says.

Showing Chao and a gaggle of press around the facilities, TRC president and CEO Mark-Tami Hatta says developing active safety technologies is the organization's number one goal.

"Some are doing safety testing, some are doing passive safety testing, some are doing extreme dynamics testing," Hatta says. "There's all kinds of things going on at once."

Credit Adora Namigadde
The Transportation Research Center makes technologies for driven cars as well as partial and totally autonomous vehicles.

One demonstration shows a dummy that's meant to resemble a six-year-old child, walking behind a black Infiniti sedan. 

"We've been for 20 years looking at the technology to see if the parking aids that are sold to detect vehicles and other obstacles might have the potential to detect people as well," one employee tells Chao.

Ohio saw more than 1,000 fatal injury crashes in 2015, according to the state highway patrol. TRC employees say that their newer rear automatic brake technologies can help reduce crashes.

A driver starts going in reverse, and just before hitting the child the car jerks to a stop.

"In the car's defense, this system actually does instruct the driver to get on the brake pedal after it brings the vehicle to a stop to hold it," the employee says. "So, crash avoided."

Around 450 people work at the research center, and lately, it's working on a new "SMART" (Smart Mobility Advanced Research and Test) Center that will be a hub of testing automated and autonomous vehicles.

Phase one of the project costs $45 million and will be completed in three years. Money from state funds, Jobs Ohio and The Ohio State University are making it possible. 

"Making an intersection, a rural network of roads, a flexible dynamic platform, and a control center and customer workshops," Hatta says.

Phase two is a winter conditions facility. 

"In other words, year-round snow, freezing rain—on-demand, all year-round," Hatta says. "The first of its kind in the world."

And, further off in the future, phase three will be a highway loop.

"A six-lane mega highway with on-ramps and off-ramps and underpasses and overpasses," Hatta says.

They're working on everything from driver-driven to partially- and fully autonomous vehicles. 

"The first autonomous vehicle will be on the highway before the last driver vehicle comes off," he told Chao. "So really part of the challenge is, how do you mix the two? And we can mix the two on purpose in a safe, controlled environment here."

As for when we'll see fully automated cars on normal roads? Hatta says in a few years.

"There are auto manufacturers that have state that fully automated level four and five will be available for sale by 2020," he says.

And many of those cars and systems will be tested in Central Ohio.

Adora Namigadde was a reporter for 89.7 NPR News. She joined WOSU News in February 2017. A Michigan native, she graduated from Wayne State University with a B.A. in Broadcast Journalism and a minor in French.