This Private Test Track Is Like Area 51 for Self-Driving Cars
We visited Ohio's highly secretive Transportation Research Center.
Sometimes called “Ohio’s Area 51,” the entrance to the largest independent car testing facility in the country is a nondescript gatehouse surrounded by soy fields. I’m only a 40-minute drive west of Columbus, Ohio, but I’m entering a parallel world with its own unique rules. I have to surrender my phone to have the cameras covered in tape just so I can be allowed in.
I mosey through the fields on an access road and up over a hill to a bridge. Thundering below me is a massive, banked, 7.5-mile-long track. Purple mini-vans and fancy silver sports cars pass under me, prototype cars I’ve been told are disguised to keep their actual make hidden from competitors, and that I have sworn not to explicitly identify. The Transportation Research Center, colloquially known as the TRC, is the largest independent vehicle testing facility in North America and home to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s testing grounds.
Despite the obvious difficulty of having dozens of competitors sharing the same testing facilities, the TRC is bustling. Between the confidentiality that starts when you step on the grounds and a surprising amount of self-policing, major car companies have used the testing grounds at the TRC for 43 years. Its 4,500 acres operate like its own little alternate universe, the one place where car companies simply look the other way instead of stealing secrets.
“Once you cross the gatehouse it’s kind of a different world, in that your expectation and what you perceive changes,” says Josh Every, automated vehicle lead and interim manager of research & engineering at the TRC. Outside the conference room where we sit are a few of the dozens of scattered research buildings made of corrugated steel, bay doors closed.
“Virtually every company that produces vehicles either currently tests or has tested here,” says Mark Tami, president of the TRC when I visited at the end of June, though he left the position shortly after I visited. He hands me a motorcycle helmet so we can go through some of the testing scenarios, and we head out to tour the facility in a black Dodge Charger. Most of the testing is for the final stage of a prototype, focusing on things like durability, lifetime wear, or anything else you need the whole car put together to test, says Tami. The helmet is for “hot laps,” which Tami demonstrates for me with a large grin, roaring the car through an extraordinarily twisty track while the back wheels squeal out behind us through the turns. It tests how the car handles that kind of extreme scenario, he says.
Along with the hot lap and the massive speed track, the land of the TRC is crisscrossed with tracks over steep hills, curving gravel roads, and mud and saltwater pits. I can’t help but double-take when I notice a prototype car drive away from me down a gravel road, a perfectly ordinary Ohio scene, except the car is covered in what’s known as dynoc, black and white stripy camouflage used to hide body detailing. Most of the non-asphalted surface remains active farmland, Tami says as we drive. Car companies can send cars in with private engineers and teams for both the short and long-term, or they can hire out the TRC engineers to perform tests. Direct competitors are assigned mechanic bays that are on different ends of the facility.
“When a client becomes a resident there is almost an indoctrination process,” says Tami. Relationships with customers start by making them feel secure about the confidentiality of their own projects, he says. Engineers that become residents of the area are taught to respect their competitors to the same degree. “There’s a give and take there, and people understand that,” says Tami. Resident company engineers are allowed to drive around parts of the facility without being escorted, unlike the short-term customers, or me.
The original plan for the TRC in the 1960s was designed to draw automotive companies to Ohio. The state purchased 8,000 acres of farmland, using half to build the testing facilities of the TRC, and the other half was used to get Honda to build a manufacturing plant nearby. The names of clients at the TRC and exactly what tests are happening are typically kept confidential.
For TRC researchers who have access to company secrets, they are often given limited information. “Generally, we don’t even know the big picture, because confidentiality is a big deal,” says Ann Mallory, TRC research scientist on assignment to NHSTA. “We tend to be involved in just very small technical parts of the project.”
Mallory’s main lab is the only one I notice with an open bay door, where she and other government-funded researchers work on creating safety standards. “If I were more interested in cars — I’m a scientist, not a car person — then maybe it would be difficult to keep information from one or the other, but in my position, the science part behind it, there’s very little of it that is confidential.”
But there are the occasional heart-stopping moments, says Every. “When a family member brings up something that we are doing here,” he says, shaking his head, “that I didn’t know that was released publicly — that they didn’t get from me — you have this very visceral knee jerk. ‘Okay, where did you hear about that? How did you know?’” The answer is always something like, “I heard it on the radio,” which elicits a sigh of relief from Every.
Despite the anxiety, leaks haven’t been a problem for the TRC, says Tami. “Most of our customers are really focused on doing their work. And so the last thing they want to do is have their eyes wander to other stuff,” he says. “Every customer knows that they don’t want others looking at their work, so there is this mutual respect.”
It seems a little hard to believe, but then Tami took me out on the test track to experience a speed test. We race around at 100 miles an hour, and my attention is drawn by a U.S. mail truck with a driver in a mailman uniform and box of mail. Tami laughs and tells me the government is testing to get specs for the next generation of mail trucks. After we got back to the offices, Tami asked me, “On the first lap, did you notice about a third of the way through the lab an un-camouflaged prototype on the outside?” Although I had noticed that there had been a car, I hadn’t noticed anything remarkable. Tami laughed. “Most people would say — it’s a car, I’m focusing on doing my testing,” he says.
One of the TRC technicians told Every about this phenomenon when he saw a vehicle that had been testing at the TRC out on the road. At the TRC, the technician had seen the car thousands of times and hadn’t really noticed it. Once it was outside the experience was totally different. “It was very odd to him. It stood out,” says Every. “In here it makes sense. Seeing a vehicle with a hundred-thousand-dollar LIDAR on top of it makes sense here. It really is a different world, and it’s a world all its own.”