Partnership created for driverless car research facility

A Columbus businessman who had proposed a test track development two years ago in the former Walesboro airport site is developing the idea in an expanded format in a partnership with Purdue University in West Lafayette.

Pruv Mobility Ecosystem, based in Columbus, and its president and CEO, John Fairbanks, have entered into an agreement with Purdue Research Foundation to build a state-of-the-art research facility, test track and proving grounds for driverless vehicles.

The company is planning to create the 517-acre facility adjacent to Purdue University’s main campus in West Lafayette. The proposed facility is planned for the foundation’s development park just southeast of the university airport.

An announcement about the agreement states the partnership is to create a “Smart City” that provides a detailed simulation of a not-too-distant future in which driverless vehicles interact and are connected to the environments where they operate.

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“Autonomous mobility is on track to touch everyone’s life,” Fairbanks said. “Our vision is to create a facility where the technologies from different industries and companies will merge. We want to open our doors and be global so organizations from anywhere in the world can use our facility.”

In October 2015, Fairbanks represented the Hageman Group in an unsuccessful effort to buy the Walesboro property south of Columbus to develop it. The Hageman Group put together a development team that had continuing conversations with then-Mayor Kristen Brown, the city’s aviation board and other city officials, with the conversation including a 2012 study that included space for a test track on the property. Fairbanks said he had been talking to Brown about the project since shortly after she took office in 2012.

The Hageman group offered $6 million to purchase the Walesboro property, and submitted a vision for it — which was not made public because the aviation board rejected the offer, Fairbanks said then.

“The track was so critical to the development of the site,” Fairbanks said in an interview in 2015. “Based on everyone we talked to, it would have been very attractive to the city and the state.”

He described the city’s reversal on the Hageman purchase offer as “a shot to the gut.”

In 2015, Jason Hester, Columbus Economic Development Board executive director, said the test track had been a part of the plan for the property “from the beginning.”

“We thought if we were able to build a new test track facility (at Walesboro), it would serve as a magnet to attract other high-value research and development center opportunities,” Hester said then.

Cummins and Faurecia have continued leasing the property for vehicle testing on the airport’s former runways, said Brian Payne, the city’s airport director.

In an interview Tuesday from a trade conference in Chicago, Fairbanks said Columbus was one of a number of sites that were considered as company officials weighed locations for the new research and testing facility.

The West Lafayette project is being developed in conjunction with a related Indianapolis project, but the West Lafayette project will go into development first, Fairbanks said. Construction is tentatively set for the third quarter of 2018 with a ribbon cutting in mid-2019, he said.

He said he could not reveal the monetary investment that will be required for the West Lafayette project, because the deal is with the foundation. However, he did say Pruv Mobility will be leasing the acreage from Purdue rather than purchasing it.

He acknowledged that the partnership with Purdue is a further itineration from the initial idea for Walesboro and evolved from continuing high-level conversations with university officials.

“Maybe the timing wasn’t right to make this happen,” he said of what happened with the test track idea about two years ago in Columbus. Fairbanks said he always is open to talking with Columbus city officials about future opportunities.

Currently, the transportation testing market for self-driving vehicles is vastly underserved, according to the news release about the new partnership. The facility is designed to meet a need for more testing facilities, labs, proving grounds, test tracks and test-bed facilities with other transportation and mobility companies that need to test their innovations and technologies.

The new facility will have an integrated technology system to capture and analyze data and develop the next generation of computing and test information and technology platforms to future-proof cybersecurity of connected and autonomous vehicles and infrastructure, the release states.

The five-mile test track and “Smart City” will use hundreds of acres on site to validate the ways in which autonomous vehicles respond to other vehicles as well as surrounding infrastructure and pedestrians and construction zones. Part of the project will be an emphasis on reducing human-created, vehicle-related injuries and deaths.

The facility will have an outdoor laboratory to provide multi-disciplinary, hands-on research into reducing waste and creating more efficient design and maintenance methods and will promote emerging propulsion technologies, including electric, hybrid, fuel cell, diesel, natural gas and other alternative energies.

Dan Hasler, chief entrepreneurial officer at Purdue Research Foundation, said locating the facility next to the Purdue campus and Discovery Park with the many related and supportive technologies being developed “makes this a game-changer for autonomous vehicle research and development.”

Pruv also is collaborating with Purdue University’s Discovery Park to develop a think tank to advance discussion on the issues that the autonomous vehicle industry faces, including transportation planning, ethics, policy, legal, safety and insurance.

In addition to autonomous vehicles, Pruv also plans on developing off-highway and aerospace divisions, Fairbanks said.

About Pruv Mobility Ecosystem

The privately-held corporation develops smart infrastructure test-beds for research, development and validation of connected, autonomous and advanced propulsion technologies, vehicles and other associated components.

For more information: pruvmobility.com

About Purdue Research Foundation

The foundation is a private, nonprofit foundation created to advance the mission of Purdue. Established in 1930, the foundation accepts gifts, administers trusts, funds scholarships and grants, acquires property, protects Purdue’s intellectual property and promotes entrepreneurial activities. The foundation manages the Purdue Foundry, Purdue Office of Technology Commercialization, Purdue Research Park and Purdue Technology Centers.

For more information: https://prf.org/

About Discovery Park

Discovery Park is a complex of facilities on 40 acres at the Purdue University campus that houses collaborative research environments to tackle interdisciplinary projects. Global health, global conflict and security, sustainable energy, world food supply, water and the environment are some of the focuses of researchers there.

For more information: purdue.edu/discoverypark/

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Julie McClure is assistant managing editor of The Republic. She can be reached at jmcclure@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5631.