Note: This story appears in the Wednesday, Sept. 18 newspaper on Page A1.
A major grant has been awarded for a project to begin testing driverless vehicles in rural areas, including here in Athens County.
DriveOhio, a state group tasked with working on “smart mobility” issues, had submitted a project proposal to the U.S. Department of Transportation in March.
The announcement came this week that an Ohio-based team earned $7.5 million in grant funding toward the project. There is reportedly an additional $10.3 million in matching funds from contributing partners.
The project is known as “D.A.T.A. in Ohio,” standing for Deploying Automated Technology Anywhere. It involves a four-year effort to test automated vehicles on rural roads in Appalachian Ohio. This testing will be conducted year-round and in various conditions — day and night, and on paved and unpaved roads.
A driver will still be behind the wheel at all times “should human intervention be needed,” a news release announcing the grant funding states.
The grant application had outlined plans to test driverless vehicles in Athens and Vinton counties. Among the preliminary routes identified are Routes 33, 50, 32, 356, 278 and others.
It was argued in the application that such testing has already taken place in urban areas, and that researchers wanted to see testing done in an rural area. With varying weather, roadways and terrain in Southeast Ohio, it was suggested the Buckeye State is a “microcosm of the United States” and worthy of further testing.
“Although 97 percent of the nation is rural, and more than half of all U.S. traffic fatalities occur on rural roads, most of this testing to date in other states has been conducted in urban areas,” stated Ohio Department of Transportation Director Jack Marchbanks in a news release. “The lessons we learn in Ohio can have enormous benefits for our own state and nationwide as we work to make our transportation system safer.”
According to the application, this project will begin with closed-track testing at the Transportation Research Center in northwestern Ohio. After that, passenger vehicles with automated driving systems would be deployed on the selected routes. Initial on-road testing would focus on safety data collection.
The collaboration also involves several Ohio University entities, including the Russ College of Engineering and Technology, the OU Diabetes Institute and the Ohio Research Institute for Transportation and the Environment. Local researchers intend to look at the feasibility of using these automated vehicles to assist residents with errands, such as getting to and from medical appointments or the store.
“Ultimately, this program is about making our roadways safer and providing freedom of mobility to people by utilizing technology-based transportation solutions,” said Luke Stedke, the managing director of communications for DriveOhio.
The application had also highlighted a partnership with the Buckeye Hills Regional Council and the city of Athens. It was reported that the city would share roadway data to assist with the automated vehicle testing. Athens Service-Safety Director Andy Stone is on the DriveOhio Government Advisory Board.
“The award of this grant shows that Ohio continues to be at the center of this new transportation technology era,” said Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine. “Ohio is committed to being at the forefront of connected and autonomous vehicle technology development.”
Tyler Buchanan is the editor of The Athens Messenger.