The University of Connecticut could become home to the first autonomous-vehicle testing facility on the East Coast.
School administrators are mulling a proposal to transform UConn’s Depot Campus in Mansfield, and the site of the abandoned Bergin Prison across the street — which the state donated to the university — into a 100- to 200-acre autonomous-vehicle testing facility that would include roads, building facades, styrofoam dummies and other items to test driverless cars’ safety on roadways.
“We could drive cars, we could test experimental vehicles, we could basically close down the roadways, and not fear hitting pedestrians or hitting other cars or driving into buildings,” said Eric Jackson, associate research professor in UConn’s engineering school, and director of the Connecticut Transportation Safety Research Center, who is spearheading the proposal.
Jackson is floating the idea for the facility, which is still in the early planning stages, to university stakeholders, and a prospective investor has tentatively offered to stake UConn up to $20 million to build the test center, he said.
The site would serve as an educational space for people interested in autonomous-vehicle technology and could place UConn in a prominent position in a future-facing industry, Jackson said.
“The goal would be to bring industry into the facility to have them do testing or research and development, or partner with the university, and be able to further the research, and increase the safety of these vehicles,” Jackson said.
The project is far from getting an official green light as many details must be worked out and top university administrators need to sign off. Figuring out a business model, land-use agreements and ownership is already tricky when dealing with the bureaucratic machinations of a state university like UConn, Jackson said. Making the process even more difficult is the lack of similar U.S. facilities to guide the process.
UConn officials said they aren’t backing the project yet, but they will consider it. The proposal comes as UConn recently set an ambitious goal to double research funding within the next decade.
“While it’s too early to know what, if anything, would be done in the area of studying autonomous vehicles, UConn looks forward to tackling grand societal challenges with its research under President Thomas Katsouleas’ leadership,” UConn spokeswoman Stephanie Reitz said.
Jackson’s idea to build an autonomous-vehicle test site came when the school’s administration was seeking ideas for how to use a plot of land encompassing the sites of UConn’s Depot Campus and the former Bergin Prison.
Both abandoned properties sit on Route 44, about two miles north of UConn’s flagship Storrs campus.
Preliminary plans for the built-up site include a loop stretching about three-quarters of a mile that would allow cars to drive as fast as 65 miles per hour. The vehicles would encircle roadways that replicate city driving conditions, complete with faux buildings, vehicles and people, Jackson said.
“Very much like a movie set … there may be some fake facades of buildings, we would potentially have fake styrofoam cars or pedestrians, dummies that would walk out in front of cars,” Jackson said.
That potemkin village setup could bring businesses outside the autonomous vehicle, or even automotive industries to UConn, Jackson said. The facility could be used to test Internet of Things (IoT) technology, and how infrastructure, communications or other components interact with autonomous vehicles.
“We’re looking at bringing in other companies — such as 3M, or Siemens, or Verizon — that do a lot in the smart-cities space,” Jackson said. “So as we start building new cars, and new methods of transportation, these companies [could] turn Connecticut into a research facility for whatever they’re trying to develop.”
The University of Michigan is one of the few universities currently operating an autonomous-vehicle testing facility with it’s 32-acre MCity site in Ann Arbor.
MCity officials this summer will mark the fifth anniversary of the public-private partnership, which opened with about $10 million in funding split evenly between the university and state government, said Greg McGuire, MCity’s associate director.
Right now, MCity has about 60 member companies from the auto industry — like Ford and General Motors — the insurance sector — such as State Farm — and companies in the communications-infrastructure space — like Verizon. Those partners pay the approximately $500,000 in annual operating costs. Industry partners doing private research and development generally pay more than academic researchers, McGuire said. MCity’s goal is to break even, rather than make a profit, he added.
“We basically take our operating cost for the facility and use it to look at the utilization and then use that to set the rate so that we’re always roughly breaking even,” McGuire said. “We’re not earning money on it, we’re not losing.”
The facility includes nine intersections and a 1,000-foot straightaway, which isn’t long enough to test cars at full speed, but is sufficient for early testing at lower speeds, McGuire said.
McGuire said UConn could use its autonomous-vehicle testing facility to study urban planning, test infrastructure technology, and for a host of other uses.
“A test facility like that is a good opportunity,” McGuire said. “It’s a good controlled environment where you can do lots of infrastructure testing, too, and not just testing self-driving cars.”