Oak Ridge lab eyes Chattanooga as testing ground for driverless trucking

Facility seeking funds for project, more collaborations with EPB, businesses

Thomas Zacharia, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory director, speaks with CEO of Variable George Yu, UTC Dean of the College of Engineering and Computer Science Daniel Pack, UTC Vice Chancellor of Research and Dean of the Graduate School Joanne Romagni, and EPB chairman Joe Ferguson Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2017, during Zacharia's visit to the Innovation District at the Edney Building in Chattanooga, Tenn. Zacharia became the Oak Ridge Lab director July 1.

We see ORNL as not just a national lab … but as a regional force.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory's new director said Wednesday the lab is considering testing in Chattanooga related to autonomous driving and long-haul trucking.

Also, lab chief Dr. Thomas Zacharia said during a visit to the city's Innovation District that a Chattanooga office set up last year "absolutely" will remain in place as the lab tries to forge new partnerships with EPB, businesses and others.

"We see ORNL as not just a national lab but as a regional force," he said. "We really want to make sure we play that role working with Chattanooga."

Zacharia, a lab veteran who became its director July 1, said the laboratory is looking for funds to help finance the long-haul trucking testing that could take place on a test track already in place off Amnicola Highway.

"One key area we believe autonomy will be a true disruptor is autonomous long-haul driving," he told a group of business people and others at the Edney Innovation Center.

Chattanooga already is a trucking and logistics hub, sporting two of the nation's biggest long-hauling trucking companies in Covenant Transportation Group and U.S. Xpress Enterprises.

Also, domestic freight scheduling business Access America grew rapidly in Chattanooga, topping $500 million in sales, before merging first with Coyote Logistics and then United Parcel Service.

And recently, a new ranking of America's fastest-growing small businesses in Inc. magazine showed Chattanooga is continuing to birth some of the country's most promising logistics companies.

"Imagine the possibilities," Zacharia said. "We're working with Chattanooga to try to see if we could be a test bed where we could do some initial tests."

Long-haul trucking makes sense for autonomous driving testing because the equipment needed could easily fit on the vehicles and there's little city driving.

"Most of the miles are on the highway," he said. Zacharia wouldn't say when such testing could begin, adding that it's dependent on securing funds, but he'd like to start work as soon as possible.

He said what also should come under study are the social costs of autonomous long-haul trucks. Truck driving is a job where one doesn't need a college degree to earn "a very good living," he said.

"As we disrupt this [driving industry], it also has a social cost," Zacharia said.

What will stay in Chattanooga, the lab director said, is the office the lab set up late last year in the EPB headquarters building. That will happen even as reports came out earlier this month that ORNL is seeking to cut as many as 350 positions to free up resources to invest in modernizing lab infrastructure and maintaining core research capabilities.

Jeff Cornett, manager for industrial and economic development at the lab, has acted as a liaison to Chattanooga and the lab is working with as many as eight projects with EPB, officials said Wednesday.

U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., said he wanted to make sure Oak Ridge National Laboratory has a presence in Chattanooga.

"What does that mean? If a manufacturer has a problem, ORNL is there to help," said the congressman, who has led busloads of Chattanoogans to the laboratory over the past few years to see its facilities. "That will take Chattanooga and ORNL to new heights."

Joe Ferguson, EPB's chairman, said "the potential is huge" due to the collaboration with the lab.

"We're just now really getting it moving," he said.

Zacharia cited EPB's hyper-fast Internet connections as helping build more ties with Oak Ridge National Laboratory and places such as the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

"We're trying to find the right intersections with UTC," he said. "We already have many collaborations going on, but in the future we hope to build on them."

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6318.