Fri | Aug 18, 2017

Ohio highway perfect for self-driving tests

Published:Sunday | August 21, 2016 | 8:00 AM
AP Vehicles drive along the Ohio Turnpike in Strongsville, Ohio, on September 29, 2011..

TOLEDO, Ohio (AP):

Ohio's toll road, a heavily travelled connector between the East Coast and Chicago, is moving closer to allowing the testing of self-driving vehicles. Testing is likely to begin within 12 months and possibly before the end of the year, the Ohio Turnpike's executive director said. Officials overseeing the roadway have spent more than a year looking at the possibilities, said Randy Cole, the turnpike's director.

Ohio is among several states competing to play a role in the testing and research of autonomous vehicles, which is advancing at light speed.

Ride-hailing service Uber said last Thursday that it will start hauling passengers in self-driving cars with human backup drivers on the streets of Pittsburgh within the next several weeks.

CONSUMER CONFIDENCE

Much of the testing, up to now, has been in California, along with a handful of Western US states and on closed courses, such as one operated by the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. More testing is needed in new places and where there's snow and ice, Cole said.

"It's got to start happening on real roads," he said in an interview last week. "That's part of getting the consumer confidence."

The Ohio Turnpike, which takes Interstate 80 across northern Ohio and links Youngstown, Cleveland and Toledo, is set up well for testing autonomous vehicles, he said. It is relatively straight and flat with three lanes in each direction, wider lane markings and space for maintenance and support crews, Cole said. And the 241-mile highway is less congested than other interstates in Ohio and already has a fibre network along the entire roadway.

Fibre optic lines aren't necessary for self-driving vehicles that rely on their own GPS systems. However, they could allow vehicles connected to the network to relay information - such as road conditions - back and forth, or help collect testing data, said Jim Barna, an assistant director with the Ohio Department of Transportation.

"That's where the fibre optics may come into play," he said.

REGULATION ISSUES

The US Transportation Department has said it will propose federal government guidelines for self-driving vehicles later this year.

States also are grappling with how to regulate the technology. Just a handful (including Nevada, California, Michigan and Florida) have approved guidelines for testing.

Because Ohio's toll road has its own governing authority, it can more easily allow the testing, Cole said. "We will make sure any vehicle testing is as safe, or safer, than any other vehicle on the road," he said. "It shouldn't scare people."

Cole said he sees more opportunities right now coming with the trucking industry. One possibility already being tested in Europe is called platooning - a tractor-trailer with a driver which is linked to a self-driving truck following closely behind.

Lowering freight costs will help the state's manufacturing industries and could create new jobs. "This is part of Ohio's future," he said.