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Imagining the future of transportation: Ohio State research is fueling the future of a smarter mobility

A year after beating out 70 cities for a multimillion-dollar prize, Columbus and The Ohio State University are leading the way to finding innovative solutions for mobility.

In June 2016, the city won the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge . The win secured $40 million in grants from the federal government and another $10 million from venture capital firm Vulcan. The funds will fuel the development and testing of high-tech, environmentally friendly transportation solutions.

“Smart Columbus is about much more than transportation. It positively impacts serious community issues like poverty, food deserts, infant mortality, access to affordable transportation, employment opportunities and internet connectivity,” College of Engineering Dean David Williams said earlier this year.

Ohio State is the lead researcher for the Smart Columbus project. The university is already testing autonomous cars, sensors that will make travel safer and tools to connect communities to more flexible transportation options.

More than just getting around

Ohio State is putting resources and some of the top minds in the industry behind the Smart Columbus effort.

Carla Bailo is the assistant vice president for mobility research at the university and is well-versed in the automotive world. Bailo is a former senior vice president of research and development for Nissan North America. When she talks about the future of driving, she’s referring to much more than getting in a car and navigating a map.

“Mobility is also moving from one social level to another,” she said. “If you’re isolated, it’s very hard to break out of certain areas in our community.”

Smart Columbus is investing and experimenting in the downtown area, Easton and the Linden neighborhood.  The goal is to test technology like high-tech streetlights that are more efficient but also to pack Wi-Fi into unserved communities.

Students from the School of Environment and Natural Resources worked with the city of Columbus to develop projects tied to the Smart Columbus program. The senior projects focused on smart streetlights, driverless shuttles, improving the energy grid and finding a high-tech way to pay for these services.

Three of the capstone projects focused on smart street lighting. One team of students built a prototype that included cameras and sensors that sampled air quality or dimmed the light depending on the time of day.

Rebecca Jennison, a fourth-year environment, economy, development and sustainability major, said the team plans to test the smart streetlight in the campus area.

“We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback and people wanting to move this forward,” she said.

Investment in research

University research aiding Smart Columbus is part of a larger commitment to solving the transportation issues of the 21st century.

Part of that investment includes a $45 million grant to expand The Ohio State University-affiliated Transportation Research Center. The grant will support research and innovation for autonomous – or driverless – vehicles.

Ohio State is contributing $25 million to TRC, with an additional $20 million coming from the state.

In addition to the university and state funding, the College of Engineering has committed $24 million over five years to hire faculty and staff to support research into autonomous vehicle technology.

The $45 million in new funding is part of an eventual $100 million improvement of the TRC in East Liberty, Ohio. The center is the nation’s largest independent test track.

“There’s been an explosion around the world in the demand for developing autonomous vehicles and the testing of autonomous vehicles,” said TRC Chief Executive Officer Mark-Tami Hotta.

The testing site is expected to be as long as 10 football fields and as wide as 50 highway lanes. The expansion will also include a simulated neighborhood with traffic lights, roundabouts and intersections and a site that mirrors a rural community.

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