Sen. Tim Kaine visited the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute on Thursday to learn more about a university-led effort to establish Southwest and Southern Virginia as a global leader in next-generation transportation by creating the most advanced real-world test environments for automated vehicles and delivery technologies.
The university’s proposal, which includes a coalition of more than 150 public, private, and nonprofit partners from across the region, is among 60 finalists out of an initial pool of 529 applications that advanced to Phase 2 of the federal Economic Development Administration’s Regional Challenge. Twenty to 30 of the bids are expected to be awarded implementation funding of up to $100 million each.
“I’m excited so many experts across the region have come together to find innovative solutions to improve transportation and logistics, especially around delivery by autonomous vehicles, electric vehicles, and drones,” Kaine said. “Their work will be path-breaking for Virginia and the nation as we continue to strengthen our economy.”
The proposal is seeking $75 million in federal funds. John Provo, director of the Virginia Tech Center for Economic and Community Engagement, which is leading the coalition, said that investment could generate more than $5 billion in economic impact and 5,000 local jobs.
“This grant would elevate Southwest and Southern Virginia as an emerging global tech hub while also establishing a resilient economy across the region by training the future workforce to adapt to the changing manufacturing environment,” Provo said.
An established EDA University Center, the Center for Economic and Community Engagement is part of Outreach and International Affairs. It provides research and university connections to help organizations and communities identify and tackle challenges in the urban-rural continuum across the commonwealth.
“This project is a prime example of the good that can happen when you convene such a remarkable group of partners from so many different sectors,” said Guru Ghosh, vice president for Outreach and International Affairs. “It also catalyzes the engagement of historically marginalized institutions and economically distressed communities across our region of Virginia in order to equitably develop a diverse and technically ready workforce.”
Dan Sui, senior vice president for research and innovation, said the proposal builds on Virginia Tech’s strengths in autonomous systems, power systems, vehicle dynamics and safety, additive manufacturing, and building materials, as well as wireless connectivity and cyber-physical security, sensing, and data analytics.
“This project brings together diverse expertise that transcends traditional discipline boundaries,” Sui said. “It also demonstrates Virginia Tech’s commitment as a land-grant university to meet the technology workforce needs of the commonwealth and beyond.”
During his stop Thursday, Kaine saw examples of the proposal’s three major components.
The first features an initiative to develop an autonomous-electric testbed along Interstate 81. Zac Doerzaph, executive director of the transportation institute, as well as representatives from Volvo Trucks and Torc Robotics, explained how a segment of connected highways around Blacksburg would be developed as a heavy-vehicle automated driving systems test corridor that extends 40 miles from Dublin to Salem. This would enable new industry partnerships across the region and also address some of the logistics challenges currently impacting the country.
Listen to more from Doerzaph on the future of transportation on the Start Disrupting podcast.
The second component would develop a similar corridor for unmanned aircraft systems. Tombo Jones, director of the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, explained how this 130-square-mile testbed would allow drone operators to test and conduct flights beyond an operator’s visual line of sight. Two local companies, Cowden Technologies and NAVOS Air, shared how advancement in this field would support the UAS industry. The project would build on MAAP’s record of leading research and development efforts that transition to commercial operations.
“Drones are part of a constellation of autonomous technologies that will introduce tremendous efficiencies into the way businesses currently operate,” Jones said. “We’ve seen that firsthand through our work as an FAA-designated test site. As we move toward what the industry calls ‘advanced air mobility,’ where uncrewed aircraft will efficiently and safely transport a wide variety of cargo, those economic benefits will scale dramatically. This grant will help establish the initial infrastructure to move Virginia toward that future.”
The third initiative would create an industry network for training, talent, technology, and entrepreneurial development. Representatives from the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center, the College of Engineering, Virginia State University, and New River Community College showed how the project would build a critical training and entrepreneur resource facility to fill the void of talent needs for advanced vehicle technologies.
Pamela VandeVord, associate dean of research and innovation in the College of Engineering, offered a high-level overview Thursday of the education and workforce component. “This region of Virginia is already poised for the technological changes necessary to adapt to global demands. The training and outreach part of this proposal will allow us to build inclusive transformation of the regional cluster through technical assistance and workforce development,” she said.
Brett Malone, president and CEO of the Corporate Research Center, said the CRC would house the Virginia Tech Manufacturing Technologies Training Studio, a hub for training industry workers, promoting job growth within regional companies, and attracting companies to the region. “We see this as a facility to de-risk technologies, promote faster and cheaper industry adoption, and further support technology-based economic development in the region,” he said.
Provo said a decision on whether the university will receive an EDA Regional Challenge grant should be announced this summer.