Brett Roubinek traded life as a NASCAR driver and rock 'n' roll radio show host to head up the Transportation Research Center, where the future of mobility is being created.

There is a hidden gem on 4,500 acres of land in East Liberty, just 50 miles from Downtown. It’s been part of Central Ohio since 1974. It has been the site of research done by NASA and an episode of Top Gear America. It pumps out data and innovations that have revolutionized vehicle safety and influenced government standards. Since 2017, Brett Roubinek has been at the wheel, overseeing its steps into a new frontier that is the smart and connected vehicle industry.

The nonprofit Transportation Research Center is the second-largest vehicle proving ground in the U.S. It has been in existence since 1962, when Ohio State University’s College of Engineering established it. It was funded by a state of Ohio highway bond issue approved by voters in 1968. In 1972, the Ohio legislature created TRC of Ohio and established the Transportation Research Board to oversee it and hire employees. In 1987, TRC’s property was offered as part of an economic benefit to attract Honda of America Manufacturing to build a plant in Ohio. It remained affiliated with Ohio State and entered into a management agreement with Honda to continue to operate as an independent test site.

Though an expansive proving ground, TRC is more than just a place to test a vehicle to make sure it’s road-ready. It has the only government lab on a proving ground and comes equipped with its own engineers to assist customers and do analysis. Some of its engineers and scientists are globally recognized as the top two or three in their area of expertise. TRC reports to Ohio State University’s College of Engineering, and Dean Dave Williams is its chairman. From the late 1980s until now, about $62 million in transportation-related endowments has been collected from TRC. It quietly does its work 24 hours a day for over 800 customers and 10 resident customers. Quiet because the work is often top secret—for example, many of its customers put patterned skins over the vehicles being tested there to keep them mysteries to others. At any given time, 90 to 100 vehicles are running, 25 percent of those by test drivers, who can drive upwards of 4 million miles per year. 

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“For 45 years, leading research around safety and durability has been occurring here with our dedicated staff behind the berm on Route 33. There’s no signs, there’s no balloons that tout [the center’s activities]. It’s quietly been [creating and testing] really life-changing technologies,” says Roubinek.

The thousands of acres—owned by Honda, which is also a TRC customer—sport tracks and topographies that simulate the challenges a vehicle could encounter during its life. The features are wide-ranging, from a floor of large rocks like a river bed (for a military vehicle perhaps); to a 7.5-mile high-speed racetrack with a 36-degree tilt around the turn; to a stretch of connected road for autonomous vehicle testing; to a crash simulator. TRC’s capabilities include safety, energy, fuel economy, emissions, durability, performance and noise testing, as well as crash simulations, for anything from scooters and motorcycles to passenger cars, trucks, buses, off-road or alternative-fuel vehicles, snowmobiles, tractors, semis, even airplanes, based on standards from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Tests for NHTSA’s Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards are the most popular tests done at the expansive facility. The land not being used is often rented to farmers.

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Roubinek, 54, is a man with an eclectic work history. His past experiences, a blend of automobiles, entrepreneurship and business savvy, make him a good fit. Prior to his time at TRC, Roubinek has been a NASCAR driver; the director of a racing school; the co-creator, writer and on-air personality of Racing Rocks, a radio network focused around racing and rock music that he created with MTV’s Riki Rachtman, most famous for hosting Headbangers Ball from 1990-95, and Kerri Kasem; and a racing simulator portal called iRacing.com. Both still exist today. When Central Ohio Transit Authority CEO Joanna Pinkerton was the COO of TRC from 2017-18 at the same time Roubinek was vice president of TRC’s proving grounds, she recommended him for the position of CEO. Pinkerton says in addition to Roubinek’s resume, he is a man who listens to understand and makes well thought-out decisions that are impactful. “I don’t use those words lightly,” she says. Pinkerton is a TRC board member as of March 2019. 

Under Roubinek’s care, TRC has added an unprecedented capability to the organization—the $45 million SmartCenter, an automated and connected vehicle testing facility with over 1.1 million square feet of pavement and more than 20,000 linear feet of underground electrical conduits for holding wires. It opened in July after a year of construction in partnership with JobsOhio, DriveOhio, the Ohio Department of Transportation and Ohio State University. In September, TRC was the recipient of the $7.5 million U.S. Department of Transportation ADS grant, which will help to better inform safety analysis of automated driving systems and aid policymakers in the writing of new federal rules that address these new technologies. 

The SmartCenter mimics what a connected vehicle would experience in real life through a stretch of connected road and a stoplight, with a control center for customers and TRC-employed facility operators. Roubinek says TRC customers testing autonomous and connected technologies are often household names, but “what’s intriguing is the number of names behind the names of the companies that are not household names, but are really deeply embedded in the space producing new technologies with sensors and things like that.”

TRC was peripherally involved in Columbus’ 2016 Smart City win and continues to be part of that effort. In 2016, the U.S. transportation department awarded a $5.9 million grant to the city of Dublin, city of Marysville and Union County for their 33 Smart Mobility Corridor initiative to build a road that can communicate with vehicles and other infrastructure. Dublin has connected some of its intersections and all Marysville intersections will be connected within the next two years, Roubinek says. “So we can actually start to get to an end state with these types of technologies where there’s messages coming into the cabin of the vehicle talking about weather conditions, traffic, talking about safety, and just better informing the driver. That leads right to our doorstep where the heavy lifting is being done today.”

Much work is being done at TRC on the biomechanics of future smart vehicles. If no one needs to drive, what will they do while traveling? Where will they sit? Is it safe? Roubinek says sometimes renderings of such automobiles “look more like sitting in a living room than sitting in a vehicle.” As such, these interior configurations all need a host of tests before they can be brought to life. A warehouse room of crash test dummies in various mismatched outfits sit ready to undergo collisions. At impact during a simulation, it apparently sounds like a bomb going off. The room where the simulations occur stays behind closed doors, as does much of the secretive TRC.

It may not be flashy, but Roubinek is most proud of the changes TRC’s research has made to vehicle safety. “The safety side of life for all of us who are on public roads is cool in my mind because it’s so important to our daily lives,” he says. Some of these safety measures include automation. Innovations like adaptive cruise control, lane keep assist and emergency braking all have ties to TRC.

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Lextant, a TRC customer and partner, is a local research and design firm that studies human experiences to influence design in areas such as transportation, health care, retail, financial and consumer packaged goods. Its CEO, Chris Rockwell, cites a Morgan Stanley study that says autonomous vehicles could offer something like $1.3 trillion in annual savings to the U.S. economy.

“The promise of that is only going to come through if people truly adopt and want to use these things,” says Rockwell. “So Brett and his team at TRC and the Lextant team are working with automotive manufacturers and tier-one suppliers to sort of unlock and understand those things so that we can bring these new products and services to market successfully.”

TRC clients include automobile manufacturers, government entities, airlines, and once, NASA. But automation is bringing out a slew of other companies from sectors that have not previously done business with TRC. Transit authorities, logistics companies and insurance companies have all been recent newcomers. Roubinek says if you can come up with an idea for a type of company that might want to use TRC’s services, it probably has used them. Customers also include companies creating new technologies.

Rockwell says while Lextant focuses on the behaviors and desires of the people who will use the technology in question, TRC focuses on the safety and dynamics, making the relationship valuable. “Many of the vehicles on the road today are impacted by Alexa and user experience research and design work,” Rockwell explains. “As part of that we’ve taken advantage of TRC facilities to conduct research because they have an amazing array of different types of environments that we can run consumers and vehicles through to test their reactions to new products and new features and how they can be designed.”

Another customer who also happens to be TRC’s landlord, Honda of America Manufacturing, frequently uses the facilities. Frank Paluch, its executive vice president, explains that any place doing automobile development needs to have a proving ground. Honda’s headquarters in Japan comes equipped with one, he says. “We as a satellite R&D facility don’t have enough work here to fill a full proving ground, but TRC provides the full proving ground as if we were a full-blown [original equipment manufacturer],” Paluch says. “So we are able to do a lot of the development and validation as if we’re doing full product creation here in the United States.”

One of Honda’s crowning achievements of the past five years was made possible by TRC. It helped develop the Acura NSX supercar beginning in 2012 (the NSX hit the market in 2016).

To test the 186 mph car, TRC’s oval track needed to be repaved, which TRC did with help from the state. Honda also uses the TRC for verification and validation testing of prototype developments before they are mass-produced, as well as for verification of vehicles on the market. Beyond that, Honda is working with Ohio State and the TRC to produce a $124 million wind tunnel to test aerodynamics and wind noise, and also an antenna lab.

“We’re now pivoting under Brett’s leadership towards the future,” says Paluch. “That allows us here in Central Ohio to introduce a lot of new technologies that we otherwise would not be able to do.”

COTA is also on TRC’s list of customers. One thing the transit authority is focused on is how its fleet can become zero-emissions, with TRC and vehicle manufacturers both playing roles in solving the problem. “I don’t think people always think about air quality first and foremost, but transportation is the No. 1 polluter in the United States now and has been for two years running,” says Pinkerton. “So this is a really awful transportation challenge that we all have to fix. We are also working with several of their customers on other projects like connected vehicle technology.” 

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As TRC travels into the future, many bumps in Central Ohio’s transportation and mobility landscape may get smoothed out at TRC as the region sees a possible surge of 1 million residents by 2050, based on a study conducted by the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission. That’s an economic development challenge that simply building new roads cannot solve; innovation and technologies we do not yet see are in order. As those innovations come, one may never know that TRC was involved. It is a silent driver, an entity that doesn’t put its brand on new technologies and findings, leaving that for the customers it serves. “We’re a great resource in many of the conversations and the research that led to that solution,” Roubinek says.

Those Columbus-centric mobility conversations are happening now with TRC, but Roubinek can’t be any more specific than that about what sorts of things may be coming.

“With the projected growth in the Central Ohio region, I’m confident that the quality of life and all of the advantages that we know about living in Central Ohio will remain and improve because of the holistic nature through which everyone involved in the conversation is approaching mobility and transportation,” he says. “Over the years, I think as the systems improve through those efforts, we will see better situations related to traffic. But to do nothing would hamper all of our lives.”

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Q&A

Brett Roubinek has found the right fit as CEO at the Transportation Research Center. He explains why:

How did you become part of TRC?
Through the software startup (iRacing.com), I became very interested in the space and about production vehicles more than about racing vehicles, and the whole topic of automation and connected vehicles. At the same time, I became connected to the people at TRC and [learned] that there was a position open back in late 2015, early 2016. So [conversations were started] around that and that’s how I wound up here. 

What is something that really excites you about your work?
How all of these technologies are going to positively impact lives. For example, mobility as a service is going to give people who in some instances are maybe housebound an opportunity that they don’t have today. That’s related to the automated and connected nature of where we’re going. 

Does TRC have plans to expand?
We’re looking at the possibility of operating facilities elsewhere to complement the core offerings. We’ve had engineers go to Alaska to do [cold] weather testing, and we’ve had engineers go to Death Valley to do hot weather testing. That would feed the Ohio economy because all of the core work would be done here at TRC by our project managers and by our project engineers, and then just the vehicle work would be done remotely. So that has happened, but there’s nothing yet set up anywhere else that’s permanent.

Chloe Teasley is staff writer for Columbus CEO.