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SCTAC runway attracts automotive R&D

June 17, 2014

The repaved 1.04-mile, 300-foot-wide track in Greenville County could easily be a drag strip or raceway, attracting spectators to cheer on cars or motorcycles roaring to a finish line.SCTAC runway attracts automotive R&D

Instead, the onetime runway at the S.C. Technology and Aviation Center is quietly gaining a reputation as a regionally unique resource for automotive marketing and research.

Automotive suppliers are among paying users of the track so far, and researchers are using it to develop electric cars batteries that recharge wirelessly and, eventually, while the car is in motion.

The test track at the 2,600-acre, former Donaldson Air Force Base complex is free of ties to any specific companies. It is located 10 minutes from downtown Greenville and 2.5 miles from the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research. Track users can transport products, customers or executives using the state’s largest general aviation airport that is also on the center property. A cluster of other buildings within view are available for exhibits, demonstrations or for use as a model for testing vehicles under urban conditions.

That has Jody Bryson, the center’s president and CEO, promoting the track as a revenue generator at the developing business park. Bryson and the center’s board have overseen recruitment of more than 99 companies that are operating on the property jointly purchased by the city and county decades ago.

“We are all about capital investment and job creation as an organization, and we have to have revenues to do that,” Bryson said.

The track repaving was part of a $1.2 million project, he said. A longer, concrete taxiway is situated parallel to the track and both are adjacent to an “urban track landscape” with overhead power lines and buildings of different heights to simulate a couple of city blocks. The area provides a unique environment for the automotive industry to test wireless vehicle technologies, Bryson said.

The track “has the potential to be a real game changer in terms of the automotive industry, in not only South Carolina, but the Southeast,” he said, adding that most test tracks in the country are tied to a particular original equipment manufacturer, but “we are OEM-neutral. And we are so close in proximity to CU-ICAR and to a vibrant downtown area like Greenville.”

The track’s location off Interstate 85 between Atlanta and Charlotte and the area’s weather are also beneficial to the effort, Bryson said.

The aviation center wants to increase and diversify its revenue base, Bryson said, and the new test track is just scratching the surface of its potential.

“We have been managing the airport and have been managing the park for 50 years,” Bryson said. “We are self-sustaining. We are dependent upon revenue, primarily from land sales and lease agreements.”

On the track

Northville, Mich.-based ZF North America, which has a transmissions plant in Gray Court and another plant in Duncan, is among the track’s early users. Spokeswoman Ashley Van Horn said the company used the track for a week last year and has plans to use it again with another media group in November.

“We rent the facility,” Van Horn said. “Last time we paid for the week.”

Van Horn said the July 2013 event coincided with the Gray Court plant opening and allowed “showcasing our technologies” to about 30 media members.

“Some of the journalists and some of our people had never been to Greenville and were just blown away,” Van Horn said.

At the event, 34 people drove Jeep Grand Cherokees, BMWs, Jaguar XJs and Porsches in tests that included electric power steering, shocks, and eight-speed and nine-speed transmissions, which are now built in Gray Court. Some of the vehicles were loaned by automakers, she said.

“On the straightaway you could feel the gearshift for our transmission,” Van Horn said.

ZF first visited the track in February 2013 and discovered “it’s pretty remarkable. SCTAC is just so close to everything,” she said. The facility “was so flexible for our needs. We had everyone stay downtown, and they walked to dinners, and it was perfect.”

ZF considered tracks in New Orleans and Las Vegas, but those were more expensive, she said.

Research and development

In addition to showcasing products, Bryson said the track’s proximity to CU-ICAR provides new research opportunities, with professors being able to offer use of the track to their industry clients.

Every professor at ICAR “has a number of automotive or aerospace clients they work with who could be potential users for this test track,” he said.

Joachim Taiber, an automotive engineering researcher at CU-ICAR who formerly worked in the BMW Information Technology Research Center, is using the track for work on wireless communication in vehicles. With Clemson as a center partner, Taiber’s use of the track, now designated as part of a nonprofit International Transportation Innovation Center, is part of a project to test wireless recharging technology aimed at removing distance limits for electric vehicles. That research is funded with a $12 million U.S. Department of Energy grant.

Taiber said his work is also linked to teams that include Toyota, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Duke Energy and Cisco.

He said a test track is being developed at the University of Michigan and “connected vehicle and automated driving” is also being tested in California and Texas.

“The reason we are working on that, the biggest complaint about electric cars is no range and high cost. So if you can charge the car wirelessly while it is in motion, then you have unlimited range, and we also did some analyzing the cost of the infrastructure. If there are enough cars using the infrastructure then it can actually work out pretty nicely. If you have that charging option you don’t need to oversize the battery which takes cost out of the car.”

Taiber said that while there is “fierce competition” over automotive manufacturing locations, the attitude toward research and development is different.

Taiber said CU-ICAR, unlike auto manufacturers, is independent of brands and works with different companies.

“We plan to do research and nonresearch. For example one of the options we have for this site is also to do drivers’ training. Professional truck drivers, for example, fleet operators,” he said. “They don’t have a site here. We are tapping into a market that doesn’t have a site.”

Car clubs and car dealers are also prospective users of the SCTAC track, he said.

“What we are not planning is a race track,” Taiber said.

Read the full article from GSA Business.

TOPICS: Upstate Thoughts, News You Can Use