Students at INNOVATE-O-thon explore potential value of self-driving shuttles on Ohio State’s campus

ORISadmin Events, Innovation


Columbus residents and visitors now have the chance to ride Ohio’s first self-driving shuttles.


The Smart Circuit shuttles began humming their way along the Scioto Mile in Downtown Columbus on Dec. 10. The low-speed, electric vehicles make stops at COSI, the National Veterans Memorial and Museum, Bicentennial Park and Smart Columbus Experience Center. The service offers free rides to the public from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week.


The initiative bringing self-driving shuttles to the Buckeye state is driven by Smart Columbus and Ohio Department of Transportation’s DriveOhio, in partnership with The Ohio State University. The Smart Circuit demonstration will help engineers, researchers and policymakers from this partnership inform future deployments of self-driving vehicle technology throughout the state.


Columbus won the Smart City Challenge in 2016, earning $40 million in grant funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation, as well as a $10-million grant from Paul G. Allen Philanthropies. With that seed funding, Columbus was dubbed “America’s Smart City,” a designation bringing with it the challenge to reinvent mobility in the capital city and serve as a model for connected urban areas of the future.


“The Ohio State University has been integral to the design of the project and the ambition for what we are going to achieve with self-driving vehicles in this community,” said Jordan Davis, director of Smart Columbus. “Ohio State has been involved since the very, very beginning — since the grant. And we have continued to work with them as we design the research and try to identify other research opportunities with faculty for this project.”


And, as the community can look forward to riding the self-driving shuttles downtown, undergraduate students at Ohio State set their sights on the potential value of bringing smart mobility to a campus setting.


Ohio State’s Institute for Materials Research hosted a three-day INNOVATE-O-thon event in November with DriveOhio, an initiative working to advance smart mobility in Ohio. Each semester, IMR challenges undergraduates studying a variety of disciplines to work with each other, as well as faculty, industry and government representatives to solve a real-world problem.


At the most recent INNOVATE-O-thon, students were challenged to help shape DriveOhio’s technology strategy by imagining a future with self-driving shuttles on the Columbus campus of Ohio State. Students built value propositions for that project and pitched them to government representatives, faculty and other subject matter experts.


Evan Luikart, a mechanical engineering freshman, was part of the top prize-winning team, earning him a seat among the first to ride on the self-driving shuttles during a preview event held Dec. 4 at the Smart Columbus Experience Center.


“I thought the ride was awesome,” he said. “It was very smooth. It just felt like I was in a car. I kind of forgot it was driving itself.”


Each student team at INNOVATE-O-thon developed a shuttle user profile, then plotted out that user’s day in the life and transportation challenges. Their ideas could be applied to a wide range of potential riders, from students, staff and faculty to prospective students touring the campus or patients and visitors of the Wexner Medical Center.


Their proposals needed to be empathetic, desirable and feasible.


Luikart and his teammates focused on safety for late-night travelers with “Hannah,” a fictional undergraduate student at Ohio State navigating an evening that begins at the Recreation and Physical Activity Center and ends early the next morning, after dinner and bar hopping with friends on North High Street.


A wide range of factors informed the transportation needs of each student-created character. One had a tight window to make a scholarship interview, another had a physical disability, another had anxiety and chronic stress. There were early mornings, late evenings, and full course loads in between.


Many scenarios were informed by direct experiences from student life.


“Students will be some of the primary users, so it was natural to go directly to them,” said Rich Granger, managing director of workforce development at DriveOhio. “On top of that, it gives students a chance to be both planners and the voice of the customer.”


Their work was guided by representatives from IMR, DriveOhio, Smart Columbus, Ohio State’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the Fisher College of Business, and the university’s Corporate Engagement Office. The event was sponsored by DriveOhio, the College of Engineering and the College of Arts and Sciences.


Students outside Ohio State also showed interest in self-driving shuttle services on campus. Collaborators joined from Central Ohio Technical College, Columbus State Community College and Marion Technical College through the Ohio Department of Higher Education’s Ohio Means Internships and Co-ops program and its central Ohio coordinator, the university’s Ohio Manufacturing Institute.


“These events give students exposure to working with not just external partners, whether they’re from industry or government, but partners who are engaged and eager to connect with our undergraduates,” said Jay Sayre, director of innovation at IMR. “And, in the process, students have to collaborate with one another. This forces a convergence of backgrounds, disciplines and individual talents that they might not have imagined coming together to solve a problem.”


Lexi Jesenovec, a freshman in business at Columbus State Community College, said she enjoyed working in a dynamic group to help shape the future of student transportation.


“Overall, I was very impressed. There was value in all five teams. Each of them brought a different perspective and insight,” Granger said. “This becomes part of a growing library of use cases for autonomous-vehicle shuttles on campus, statewide. This is the first chapter in that collection.”


The Institute for Materials Research is an interdisciplinary institute that works across colleges and departments at The Ohio State University to facilitate, promote and coordinate research and infrastructure related to the science and engineering of materials.

Follow: @OhioStateIMR


Story by Mike Huson, IMR Public Relations Coordinator