Virginia Tech is competing for as much as $100 million in federal funds to support economic development through a regional transportation and logistics cluster that will accelerate the adoption of electric and automated vehicles and revitalize the economy of Southern and Southwest Virginia.
A coalition led by the university was selected as one of 60 finalists for the $1 billion Build Back Better Regional Challenge funded by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration. The challenge, which received 529 applications from across the country, aims to accelerate the economic recovery from the pandemic. It is the largest economic development initiative from the Commerce Department in decades.
Virginia Tech has assembled a team of higher education partners, industry and community representatives, small-business development centers, and others to build upon the region’s existing strengths in vehicle manufacturing, vehicle testing and evaluation, and technology-based economic development.
“This award opens the door to transformative economic opportunities for Southwest and Southern Virginia in the transportation and logistics sector, and the coalition led by Virginia Tech offers a remarkable hub of resources to support the growth of this industry,” U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine said.
U.S. Sen. Mark Warner said, “This project speaks to the kind of impact Virginia Tech has as a regional catalyst, bringing together partners from so many different sectors and positioning Virginia for global leadership in automated electric delivery.”
“This project has the potential to bring transformational change to Southwest and Southern Virginia and to shrink the economic divide between our rural and urban communities,” Virginia Tech President Tim Sands said. “It will tap into Virginia Tech’s world-recognized expertise and our ability to convene diverse partners to tackle some of humanity’s most pressing problems.”
The coalition involved in the project includes 50 public and private organizations from 21 counties across Southern and Southwest Virginia.
“This is a wonderful example of the power of regional collaboration,” said Robert Sandel, president of Virginia Western Community College, which will help build an industry network for training, talent, technology, and entrepreneurial development.
The region boasts one of the largest collections of truck manufacturing plants across the country, with companies including Torc Robotics, Mack, Volvo, and Morgan-Olsen. Daimler Truck acquired a majority stake in Torc, a leader in self-driving autonomous vehicle software and automated truck systems.
“Torc is proud to support the coalition and continue to contribute to the booming growth and innovation in the region,” Torc CEO and founder Michael Fleming said. “Our roots in autonomous vehicle research were built and fostered at Virginia Tech, and we can see the impacts of this coalition locally and beyond. Our mission of saving lives and strengthening the U.S. supply chain will benefit everyone.”
The proposal was developed by Virginia Tech’s Center for Economic and Community Engagement, part of Outreach and International Affairs, and the Office of the Vice President for Strategic Alliances. Faculty and staff from across the university — including the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center, the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, and the College of Engineering — will be instrumental in moving the project forward.
“Virginia Tech’s research enterprise, facilities, and academic offerings, coupled with the region’s significant truck manufacturing presence and innovative partnerships with other higher education institutions, businesses, governments, and nonprofits will further strengthen this region as a hub for innovation and growth in autonomous electric delivery,” said Steve McKnight, the university’s vice president for strategic alliances.
“This project builds a critical training and entrepreneur resource facility to fill the void of talent needs for critical technologies. It also aligns with the university’s continued role with the Commonwealth of Virginia’s Tech Talent Initiative, a statewide push to increase graduates in computer science, computer engineering, and closely related fields,” said Pamela VandeVord, associate dean for research and graduate studies in the College of Engineering.
“We are excited about the success of the phase one application to support the future of transportation and logistics in the commonwealth,” said M. Omar Faison, associate vice president for research and director of sponsored programs at Virginia State University, one of the coalition partners. “We believe that this collaborative approach will allow our universities — Virginia Tech and [Virginia State University] — and regional partners to provide significant impact on the localities across Southern and Southwest Virginia while helping to advance a valued industry that supports virtually all of our economy.”
As a finalist, Virginia Tech receives $500,000 to develop its proposal to compete in the second phase of the challenge, which will award 20 to 30 regional coalitions up to $100 million each.
Principal investigator John Provo, director of the Center for Economic and Community Engagement, said the project’s objective is to catalyze economic growth by aligning the region’s existing assets, accelerating the adoption of critical vehicle technologies, and achieving global prominence in automated electric delivery. It outlines three transformative projects to grow the transportation and logistics cluster across the region.
The first of these is an autonomous-electric testbed along the Interstate 81 corridor. The plan would create a continuous segment of connected highways around Blacksburg to be used as a heavy-vehicle automated driving systems test corridor. This would enable new industry partnerships across the region and also address some of the logistics challenges currently impacting the country.
The second project would create an advanced air mobility testbed to evaluate unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) in beyond line-of-sight operations. Building on knowledge from the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, an FAA-designated UAS test site, as well as the expertise of key industry partners such as Raytheon and UPS, the initial corridor of approximately 130 square miles could lead to a much larger one connecting population centers across Virginia and beyond.
The third proposed project leverages partnerships with regional community colleges, Virginia State University, manufacturing extension services, small-business development centers, and others to grow a network of facility, training, technical, and entrepreneurial resources serving the region’s commercial and industrial vehicle cluster. A new Manufacturing Technologies Training Studio will be created at the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center to provide workforce development and relevant startup programming.
“The people of Southern and Southwest Virginia are our families and our neighbors, and helping them thrive is at the heart of our land-grant mission,” Provo said. “One of the characteristics that makes our project stand out is how people- and place-based it is. Leveraging the strengths of the people and organizations already in place, it will have a real impact on this historically disadvantaged region.”