Ohio has embraced the digitalization of transportation by investing $15 million to make a 35-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 33 into “a real-world proving ground for autonomous and connected vehicles.”  The resulting Smart Mobility Corridor will have high-capacity fiber optic cable and wireless sensors embedded directly along the roadway, allowing researchers to monitor, collect, and analyze data on important variables such as weather, surface conditions, traffic, and accidents. The Corridor’s rich data stream will be a boon for companies such as Otto, a subsidiary of Uber, which retrofits long-haul trucks with self-driving technology. 
“Data collected on this corridor will allow automotive innovators to test and refine jobs‑creating technologies that are going to help move people and products more safely and efficiently,” said Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) Director Jerry Wray. “By being one of the first states to embrace autonomous and connected vehicle technology, Ohio can also be among the first to benefit from its rewards, giving Ohioans a safer, better driving experience and offering businesses reduced transportation costs, faster access to markets and increased efficiencies.” 
Autonomous vehicles typically refer to automated vehicles that do not require a human to operate. Connected vehicles are those that have the ability to communicate with the driver, other vehicles and with infrastructure. It is the potential to test vehicle to infrastructure (V2I) communications that makes the Smart Mobility Corridor a particularly exciting project. For example, the Corridor would be able to broadcast upcoming lane closures or unsafe conditions to the operating system of a driver-less connected vehicle, which in turn would adjust its speed and trajectory.  Connected vehicles would also be able to leverage V2I communications to more effectively “platoon” one behind another (i.e. a group of vehicles that travels very closely together and safely at high speed).  According to a 2013 paper published by the McKinsey Global Institute, “the benefits [of autonomous driving] provided by improved safety, time savings, productivity increases, and lower fuel consumption and emissions could have a total economic impact of $200 billion to $1.9 trillion per year by 2025.” 
While the Corridor’s full array of fiber optic cables and transmitters are not expected to be in place until late 2018, the project is part of a much larger and longer-term Smart Mobility Initiative that seeks to turn Ohio into a national transportation infrastructure leader. In addition to the Corridor, the state plans to fund two additional smart highway projects (I-270 and I-90) to help create a contiguous interstate testing ground for companies innovating in transportation. Supplementing these direct infrastructure investments is $45 million for research at the 4,500-acre Transportation Research Center (TRC) in East Liberty, which is one of the most advanced independent testing facilities for autonomous vehicle and smart highway research, including compliance and certification testing for vehicles and components, crash testing, emissions testing, and durability testing. Lastly, Columbus won a $40 million federal grant in 2016, along with $100 million of third-party co-investment, to develop Ohio’s capital city as a hub for intelligent transportation. 
While the long-term future looks bright for Ohio, the state must grapple with some pressing challenges. First is the issue of developing universal standards for wireless communications between vehicles and sensors on highway infrastructure. According to David Williams, dean of the OSU College of Engineering and a board member of the TRC, “at this moment, policy and standards and regulations are far behind [smart mobility technology]. So far, we’re just touching the tip of the iceberg with what needs to be studied…and whether the standards need to be national or global. These issues need to be managed pretty quickly.”  Second, with an estimated 3.5 million truck drivers in the U.S. and 68,500 in Ohio alone, the digitalization of transportation presents new challenges for a once stable blue-collar profession.  In the short and medium-term, Ohio will be prudent to develop a set of standards around autonomous vehicles and V2I communications that not only best serves the interests of the state and its citizens, but is also scalable to other regions in the U.S. Moreover, the government must carefully balance the interests of all stakeholders when it comes to drafting commercial policy around the operation of autonomous and connected vehicles on public roadways. If it is able to tackle these two matters successfully, the State of Ohio will become a shining example for other U.S. state governments to follow, and perhaps for global policymakers as well.
What is the best way to develop communications standards and regulatory policy for autonomous vehicles? Will the rise of autonomous vehicles and smart transportation infrastructure force long-haul truck drivers to find employment elsewhere, or can these workers adapt to fit new roles? Will political challenges be a gatekeeper to the technology becoming widely adapted in the U.S. and globally?
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[Featured Image, Figure 1] “33 Smart Corridor: NW 33 Innovation Corridor – Council Of Governments”. 2017. Morpc.Org. https://www.morpc.org/Assets/MORPC/files/05-11-201733SmartCorridor.pdf.
[Figure 2] “Connected Trucks – Freight Transport Of The Future By Using The Internet | Daimler”. 2017. Daimler. https://www.daimler.com/innovation/digitalization/connectivity/connected-trucks.html.