From Rust to Robots: How the Midwest Could Become a Hub for Advanced Transportation

American Center for Mobility at Willow Run

A new collection of transportation agencies and universities is taking one small step toward transforming the Rust Belt into a place associated with the future instead of the past. Eleven agencies and institutions located in Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania have formed the Smart Belt Coalition, which will spur joint efforts on the testing and deployment of autonomous and connected cars.

The collaboration comes on the heels of a legislative overhaul of Michigan regulations last month, which have been relaxed to spur the testing of self-driving technology on the state’s public roads. Ohio and Pennsylvania do not have laws on the books governing autonomous vehicles, but in their absence, both states have encouraged such tests.

All three states have attracted their share of autonomous testing on their own, in some cases competing with one another for projects. Together, the efforts of the three states may serve as a regional counterweight to the autonomous testing that has proliferated in California, Arizona, and Nevada.

“While there’s competition in all these things, in the aggregate there’s a lot of benefit to cooperating, too,” said Jeff Cranson, the Michigan Department of Transportation’s director of communications.

The Michigan DOT is a member of the coalition, as is the American Center for Mobility, a proving ground for autonomous and connected cars on which construction crews broke ground late last year. Few places better symbolize the hopes these states hold in using advanced transportation as a means of economic reinvention. When completed, the ACM will sit on the grounds of the former Willow Run factory in Southeast Michigan. Both Ford and General Motors had used the assembly plant, which in its heyday was a manufacturing site for airplanes during World War II. Until recently, it had stood as a polluted reminder of industrial neglect.

Willow-Run-1

In addition, the coalition includes the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, Ohio Department of Transportation, Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, Carnegie Mellon University, University of Michigan, Michigan State University, Ohio Turnpike and Infrastructure Commission, Ohio State University, and the Transportation Research Center, another independent proving ground under development in East Liberty, Ohio.

First, the coalition members intend to prioritize projects that evaluate autonomous and connected technologies in construction zones, including finding ways to make the areas more uniform and offering real-time information to nearby motorists. They’ll also focus on projects that involve truck platoons, the likes of which were tested by the U.S. Army last summer along I-69 in Michigan. Separately, Ohio permitted Otto, a subsidiary of Uber that is pursuing self-driving truck technology, to test its trucks along the Ohio Turnpike and Route 33 in the Buckeye State in late 2016.

It’s a nice way to reframe the Rust Belt narrative.
— Jeff Cranson, Michigan Department of Transportation

Ohio is spending $ 15 million along a 35-mile stretch of Route 33 to outfit the road with high-capacity fiber-optic cables as well as embedded and wireless sensors from which researchers can observe and obtain data in real time. While that effort began before the Smart Belt Coalition formed, it highlights the type of work researchers intend to do across the three-state spectrum.

Uber-PA

The Transportation Research Center and the American Center for Mobility (ACM) are nonprofit venues that hope to attract private testing. The ACM was officially designated as an Automated Vehicle Proving Ground by the U.S. Department of Transportation last week. Earlier this month, the ACM, Ford, Delphi, and AT&T announced a partnership to test new LTE networks in connected-car environments. The city of Pittsburgh, where Uber has deployed a pilot project involving self-driving vehicles and an experiment that uses smart traffic lights to improve traffic flow, also received the same U.S. DOT designation. Last summer, the U.S. DOT named Columbus, Ohio, its first Smart City and gave it $ 40 million to allocate toward mobility projects.

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The Smart Belt Coalition aims to build on these strengths.

“It’s been the subject of discussion among these entities for quite some time, including coming up with this name,” Cranson said. “It’s a nice way to reframe the Rust Belt narrative.”


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