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That vehicle you'll soon pass on highways in northern Ohio just might be driving itself

It'll be awhile before Cincinnati tests auto-cars
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Posted at 7:00 AM, Sep 03, 2016
and last updated 2016-09-03 08:03:12-04

CINCINNATI -- A year from now, Northern Ohio drivers may be sharing the highway with self-driving vehicles. Automated cars, however, are still in the distance for Greater Cincinnati.

Testing of self-driving vehicles is likely to begin within 12 months on the Ohio Turnpike, according to a recent announcement by the Ohio Turnpike Commission, and the state’s highway department is working on creating a second testing area along U.S. 33. Only after extensive testing in ideal conditions will the self-driving vehicles be allowed in other areas.

“We plan to pilot the technology on those two roads,” said Jim Barna, an assistant director with the Ohio Department of Transportation. “Out of these lessons, the technology develops and expands.”

The two roads in question, he said, are set up well for testing autonomous vehicles. The Ohio Turnpike, which takes Interstate 80 across Northern Ohio and links Youngstown, Cleveland and Toledo, is fairly straight, has three lanes in each direction, and has wider-than-usual lane markings. Additionally, the 241-mile highway is less congested than other interstates in Ohio and already has a fiber network along the entire roadway. 

U.S. 33 offers similar conditions and is set to have fiber-optic cable installed as early as next spring. Though fiber-optic lines are not necessary for self-driving vehicles, it is viewed as a benefit as it does allow connected vehicles to relay information like road conditions.

Columbus was awarded a $40 million federal grant this summer to put new transportation technologies, including self-driving cars and connected vehicles, into use. The grant will supplement the $90 million already raised by the city from private donors to carry out its plan.

According to a release from the U.S. Department of Transportation, Columbus was selected as the winner because it “put forward an impressive, holistic vision for how technology can help all of the city’s residents to move more easily and to access opportunity.” The city proposed the development of three electric self-driving shuttles to link a new bus rapid transit center to a retail district as well as the use of data analytics to improve health care access in a neighborhood that currently has an infant mortality rate four times that of the national average.

While Barna called the amount of traffic on Interstates 75 and 71 an obstacle for testing or using autonomous vehicles in the Cincinnati area, he was confident it wouldn’t impede the technology from eventually being available in this area. 

“I wasn’t thinking about this even a year ago. I was thinking it was still a long way off, but it is at our doorstep right now and it is very important. We need to keep up with technology,” Barna said, adding that vehicle automation is expected to be important in the future and will be viewed as an incentive for many businesses determining where to set up shop. “This will be a game-changer.”

Ohio is among several states competing to test and research autonomous vehicles. Much of the testing, up to now, has been in California along with a handful of Western states and on closed courses.

Nevada was the first state to authorize the operation of autonomous vehicles in 2011. Since then, seven other states -- California, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, North Dakota, Tennessee and Utah -- and Washington, D.C., have passed legislation related to autonomous vehicles.

Potential benefits of this type of technology include the reduction of serious-injury crashes or fatal crashes, increased mobility for the elderly and non-driving populations, improved access to quality health care and jobs, and economic development.

Kentucky currently has no legislation or statute that allows for testing driverless vehicles. The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, in partnership with the Kentucky Transportation Center, is in the process of reviewing laws, regulations and policy to determine what opportunities or challenges may exist for all levels of automated vehicles and connected vehicles, said Naitore Djigbenou, Deputy Executive Director of the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet.

“Preparing for innovative technology is a point of emphasis for the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet,” Djigbenou said. Leaders from the Kentucky Office of Highway Safety are attending the Governor’s Highway Safety Association Annual Meeting in Seattle Aug. 27-31, which features a general session devoted to the implications of self-driving vehicles.

Not necessarily driverless

During testing, the vehicles will not necessarily be driverless; however, the primary role of the person in the driver’s seat will be to make sure the vehicle’s guidance system is working properly.

A combination of cameras, radar, ultrasonic sensors and data will brake, accelerate and steer the vehicle. Software reads the painted lines on the roadway to steer the vehicle. When the vehicle can’t read the painted lines, due to rain or snow, or if the driver hasn’t touched the steering wheel in a while, the vehicle will alert the driver to take the wheel.