On a nondescript stretch of land in rural Ohio, the Transportation Research Center (TRC) has become the scene of one of the world's most ambitious autonomous vehicle testing projects.
The 4,500-acre complex, a 40-minute drive west of state capital Columbus, has all the auto-related trimmings you might expect: a 12km track, wooded trails for off-road testing and a “vehicle dynamics area” to name some. Open 24 hours a day all year round, companies come here to test their latest wares and technologies.
The TRC now finds itself as ground zero for developing technology that is set to shape not just how private motorists drive in the future, but the entire land-based transportation infrastructure world for the next century.
Several weeks ago the luxury electric car maker Lucid saw its prototype hit nearly 380km per hour on the track.
Last year Alphabet's autonomous driving company, Waymo, signed a deal with the TRC to build a "custom testing environment" that would see its fifth generation, self-driving Waymo Driver system put through its paces in a specially built facility complete with 2km of "streets," six lanes and a variety of signalling setups common to urban environments.
The TRC's SMARTCenter boasts movable streets, roundabouts and a bevy of traffic intersection scenarios to depict real world driving events. Tesla and self-driving truck start-up Plus have also been using the TRC's facilities to test and develop their wares.
"I think that automated and connected vehicles are essentially the Holy Grail. (That's because) if we look back on the history of mobility, a commonly quoted statistic is that roughly 94 per cent of accidents are caused by some form of driver error," says TRC president Brett Roubinek.
“This is that next step where we hope that we’ll never need the passive safety features that react once an incident has occurred. I would put (autonomous transport technology) up there with the invention of the wheel. It’s truly a quantum leap in the history of transportation. It will have a positive effect on folks who find it difficult to move around.”
What’s clear is that the day of the combustion engine on our roads is coming to an end. But what’s less obvious is how, side-by-side that change, autonomous transport will play a role in reducing carbon emissions.
One line of thought suggests the rise of autonomous transportation would see commuters turn away from buses and trains and into their own cars where, in the privacy of their own vehicle, individuals can work, sleep or relax. Commute times could rise exponentially: If you can sleep in your car it doesn’t matter how long it takes to get from home to the office.
"Once you make things easier to move around you get a lot more of it moving than you had before," says Ognen Stojanovski, who helped launch the autonomous truck company Otto in 2018. "So we're going to have a lot more people driven to a lot more places than they previously were."
That would lead to far more vehicles on the roads, in turn resulting in a greater demand for batteries and electricity, in turn raising the need for energy and natural resources.
"Personally-owned AVs [autonomous vehicles] would result in a massive increase in vehicle use," says Daniel Sperling, founding director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis. But that doesn't mean all is lost.
“It is crucial that governments begin putting in place policies to incentivise shared AVs – meaning that they are owned by a mobility service company (which could be operated as a regulated utility), and incentives are put in place to encourage sharing of rides and disincentives put in place to discourage single-passenger services and single-occupant personal vehicles.”
Regulation aside, there’s an argument that not only would autonomous transport systems save countless lives with human error no longer a point of issue, in terms of fighting climate change self-driving cars could prove hugely beneficial.
An article published by the Rocky Mountain Institute in 2015 argued AVs could attain "incredible efficiencies for a variety of reasons".
“They accelerate and decelerate optimally, can draft and platoon with other AVs, and can reduce weight by removing unnecessary human interface equipment like steering wheels and brake pedals.”
Most of all, however, the article argues “the largest opportunity for AVs – especially when paired with optimised mobility as a service businesses – is in a massive reduction of the vehicle fleet”.
Despite his concerns around the potentially negative environmental effects associated with their greater numbers on the roads, reducing the fleet size is an approach that Sperling believes could be beneficial.
“Along with electrification of vehicles, shared AVs are by far the best opportunity to create a truly sustainable transportation system. These shared electric vehicles could be conventionally-sized vehicles, but also vans and small buses.”
But it’s not clear which route – greater car pooling or individual trips – motorists are more likely to go down in 20 or 30 years from now. One important argument in favour of AVs benefiting the climate centres on the notion that onboard computers will be able to identify and avoid traffic jams more proficiently than humans can, allowing cars to take alternative routes instead of sitting in traffic, burning up valuable battery power.
Similarly, since many accidents are in the first place caused by human error rather than mechanical failure, the fact that on board computers are in charge should mean that the frequency of jams and slowdowns should be but a fraction of what’s experienced on the world’s streets and highways today.
Point of concern
Use of private cars in the future is not the only point of concern on the issue. While trucks make up just 1 per cent of the national fleet in the US, they contribute around 29 per cent of the industry’s emissions. With that in mind, huge efforts have been made to advance electric-powered transportation systems.
Amazon says it plans to have 100,000 electric-powered trucks on American roads by 2024 and claims it will be 100 per cent renewable by 2030. FedEx, the shipping company, received the first of a new fleet of electric light commercial vehicles this month. Some reports suggest that increased battery density will allow a 40-tonne truck to drive 400km on a single charge by 2025.
But how does this play out at the intersection of AVs and a warming planet?
Plus, the autonomous trucking technology company, in June began a pilot programme in the western US which, it claimed, would see self-driven vehicles reduce fuel consumption by 10 per cent “compared to the most efficient driver.”
On top of that, next year Plus will release its first natural gas-powered trucks into the US market which, it claims, “reduces smog-forming emissions by 90 per cent compared to current EPA standards for nitrogen-oxide air pollutants.”.
Much of this technology has been tested at Ohio’s TRC. For that reason it is clearly a secretive and highly-secured place. Confidentiality agreements are required of companies and individuals using the site. The cameras on visitors’ phones are taped over before entering the facility.
The site's management don't refer to individual clients by name, nor can it comment on any project that may be taking place. It has been used as a testing space for Nasa, has featured in the US version of Top Gear, and is home to the US government's Vehicle Research and Test Center.
Earlier this year the TRC announced it is to take over a test and research centre in California that will see it located within two hours of many of the Silicon Valley-based start-ups from which the cutting-edge auto tech is these days emerging.
For Roubinek, an ex-racing car driver who also once worked at a software start-up in Boston, the role AVs can play in the battle against a warming planet is not ambiguous. “I’ll let the scientists determine the impact,” he says, “but we all hope it will help address that challenge.”