Auburn opens autonomous vehicle facility at test track

The new garage and conference center will be a 'showcase' area for researchers, sponsors, state officials and companies looking for new technology solutions.
By: | February 16, 2021
Auburn University's new autonomous vehicle research facility is one of the few in the nation attached to a test track. (Photo courtesy of Auburn University)

It’s not Talladega Motor Speedway, but a 1.7-mile stretch of asphalt just south of Auburn University will serve as a training ground of sorts for students at the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering.

The National Center for Asphalt Technology is at it sounds – a place where the testing of pavement and materials is done to help ensure that the nation’s infrastructure is intact. As roadways (and campuses for that matter) have become more congested, there has been a surge in interest – though slow developing – in the widespread use of autonomous vehicles.

Auburn decided to meet that demand by constructing and opening a sophisticated new facility housed at its NCAT test track to conduct further research into the technology.

The new autonomous vehicle lab is a multi-bay garage for both commercial and personal vehicles that contains office space, an observation wing and conference room for faculty, researchers and students. It is one of the first such facilities to be connected to a test track in the nation.

“The fact that we have our own test track where we can run autonomous vehicles and autonomous testing attached to this facility I think is an unbelievably unique asset,” said David Bevly, Professor of mechanical engineering and co-director of the GPS and Vehicle Dynamics Laboratory. “It’s a great facility for us as a team, but also allows us to showcase our work.”

The observation area, in particular, gives researchers a chance to view their efforts firsthand and further their research. The GPS and Vehicle Dynamics Lab has worked with a number of companies and agencies in the past on projects involving autonomous vehicles, including the Department of Defense and the Federal Highway Administration.

“Auburn is a major player in transportation engineering research in the nation,” said Steve Taylor, the College of Engineering’s associate dean for research. “The GAVLAB and our other transportation engineering researchers have brought in nearly $50 million in sponsored research awards over the past three years. This new facility is an exciting development for Auburn, and there will be much more to come.”

Students are often at the center of this work and the test track facility will provide one more way for them to pursue masters or doctoral degrees in the field while helping further efforts around new technology.

Autonomous vehicle studies have become popular with STEM-leaning faculty and  students, who not only want to work on systems that help make vehicles run safely, but also are looking to assist in other applications such as public transportation, the environment and privacy and security.

For almost two decades, researchers at universities across the country have been looking at the potential of autonomous, or self-driving vehicles. One of the leaders is Stanford University and its Center for Automotive Research at Stanford (CARS). It too has a robust lab called the Volkswagen Automotive Innovation (VAIL) Facility, where research is conducted. Like Auburn, the bringing together of policymakers, faculty and students has been key in advancing the technology and its impact.

Another institution two hours down the road from Auburn, the University of Alabama-Birmingham, received a $35 million, four-year grant in October to build an autonomous vehicle facility that will specifically serve the United States Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Ground Vehicles Systems Center.

The University of Michigan and the Toyota Research Institute announced they have extended their collaborative work by five years and $15 million in autonomous technology and related fields such as artificial intelligence and robotics.