Rural, city streets become part of landscape at expanded VTTI Smart Road in Blacksburg

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BLACKSBURG, Va. (WDBJ7) Researchers in Blacksburg are testing how self-driving cars react to the roadway and real-world hazards by recreating those scenarios on a new test track.

It's part of an expansion of the "Smart Road," unveiled Tuesday at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute.

A picturesque countryside outside of Blacksburg is the latest canvas for self-driving car research. It's called the Rural Roadway Expansion, set to open next year that puts advanced vehicles on rural, winding, and narrow roads. This closed course will expose potential challenges to the technology.

"This is actually a one of a kind facility in the US. It's a facility that is going to let exercise vehicles," said Myra Blanco, the director of the Center for Public Policy, Partnerships, and Outreach within VTTI.

It's just one of four expansions to the Smart Road. The roadway is used to research and improve autonomous vehicles in different road and weather conditions. This new urban test track allows the institute to imitate life in the city and in neighborhoods.

"We can make a city block for example with buildings or something that looks like houses with kids running out and so that's really the transformation is providing us with an environment where we can test situations that are more conducive to that lower speed type environment," said Luke Neurauter, a group leader at the Center for Advanced Automotive Research within VTTI.

Road markings here can be changed to create a new driving experience and test how autonomous vehicles react. Their research takes them off this test track too and draws attention. Who can forget the now famous car seat costume that caused a ruckus in Northern Virginia. It's all in the name of research, capturing how other drivers and pedestrians respond to driverless cars.

Because that research takes them out of the confines of the test track, researchers can now also transition seamlessly between route 460 and the Smart Road. A new connector makes access to the Smart Road easier for studies both on campus and off.

The institute also broke ground on a new Automation Hub that will house an internship program linking students with autonomous car companies while the students conducting research at Virginia Tech.

"I think this is providing a lot of new opportunities for this part of Virginia," Blanco said.