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Self-driving vehicles, SMART road technology being tested in Ohio

Fiber optic cable alongside U.S. 33 between East Liberty and Dublin, Ohio (WKEF/WRGT)

EAST LIBERTY, Ohio (WKEF/WRGT)- If you drove on U.S. 33 at the end of 2016 near East Liberty, in Logan County you may have seen Otto, the self-driving truck.

"That's pretty wild. That's like the Jetson age, the old cartoon show you know," Albert Olah, Jr. said.

Olah is a truck driver Fox 45’s Christian Hauser talked with at a rest stop along route 33.

"I'm not real comfortable sitting in a car someone else is driving. I like to be in control. I don't know [riding in a self-driving truck] that'd be a little scary but I'd try it. I'd go for anything once I guess, I'd try it," Olah said.

Self-driving trucks would clear the way for what’s called “platooning.”

"That's to drive them very close to each other and that's basically having the lead truck communicate with all the trucks so all the braking is instantaneous with all the trucks," Barna said. "There's a big fuel savings for trucks that platoon. So, I think that would be their first goal prior to the fully-autonomous trucks.”

The self-driving technology is just the beginning for Ohio roadways though.

Fox 45’s Christian Hauser sat down with Jim Barna, the Chief Engineer & Assistant Director at the Ohio Department of Transportation.

Barna says high-tech highways will save lives.

"It's the number one reason we're pursuing this technology," Barna said.

U.S. 33 between East Liberty and Dublin, just northwest of Columbus, is known as the SMART corridor. Fiber optic cable was run along it to carry data about road conditions this past summer.

"Let's say a vehicle hits a patch of black ice or something and its anti-skid technology engages. That information could be transmitted to another vehicle to warn that vehicle of the upcoming hazard," Barna said.

The data won't stop with the next car coming down the road though.

"It also gives us the information here in our traffic operations center so that we can send that information back out to other drivers as well or send out de-icing equipment to those specific locations to remove that hazard," Barna said.

Every new vehicle bought today has some level of autonomy in it. Plus, they act like sensors and will constantly collect data about the vehicle’s performance.

"Whether you turn your wipers on, whether the anti-skid engages, whether you brake heavily out there, it gives us information of what's going on in the system at any given time so we can make adjustments through the traffic operations behind me to make sure that we're able to give you a much more reliable commute," Barna said.

Barna says more than 90% of the crashes on Ohio roads are because of human error and each year more than 1,100 people die on Ohio roads

"We think this technology can reduce that by 80% The more and more we're able to deploy this technology, the more and more we think we're going to make some serious in-roads in reducing the fatals and serious crashes in the state," Barna said.

Back to our truck driver, Al. He says he's all for anything that will make the roads safer for him to deliver cargo.

"I don't feel, myself, a lot of people are qualified to be driving. Cellphones are a big problem out here on the highways. Everybody is doing things other than what they're supposed to be doing," Olah said.

Now the million-dollar question, when will this technology be used to save lives?

Barna thinks it's about a decade away before it's widely used but automatic braking and lane assist technology are widely available in today's vehicles.

It’s not just U.S. 33 that’s becoming smarter. Barna says testing will be done at five sites in the state. Testing has already started on the Ohio Turnpike. I-90 in the north is in the process of being outfitted with smart technology. Eventually I-670 and I-270 in the Columbus area will become smart corridors.

Barna says Ohio comes in first for automotive parts production and second for vehicle production. He says no other state doing as much testing as the buckeye state. He says the state has the fourth largest interstate system.

Several major automotive companies expect to have fully autonomous vehicles on the market within the next few years.

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