Iowa Ideas
Iowa Ideas

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What's needed for autonomous cars to come to Iowa?

Panelists caution safety until technology is more developed

Sep 21, 2017 at 2:47 pm
    An autonomous Tesla research vehicle is parked outside during the Iowa Ideas conference at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Cedar Rapids Convention Complex on Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

    CEDAR RAPIDS — Autonomous vehicles have the potential to send waves of change through Iowa and the country, but the technology still is like a 16-year-old driver, an Iowa Ideas panel said Thursday.

    Vehicles that drive themselves, the panel said, will decrease car crashes, alter car ownership and traffic patterns, and result in the more efficient movement of people and products.

    “One thing we do expect from this, regardless, is definitely a more efficient movement of goods from Point A to Point B. Exactly how that happens, we’re not entirely sure yet,” said Scott Marler, director of traffic operations with the Iowa Department of Transportation.

    Until the technology is more prevalent and safe, however, human drivers need to pay attention.

    “A teen driver, they can drive but they’re going to make mistakes. This kind of technology is not perfect by any means and we have to heavily monitor it so that we can take over quickly,” said Dan McGehee, director of the National Advanced Driving Simulator at the University of Iowa.

    Thursday’s panelists cautioned that market saturation of fully autonomous transport is years away. To get there, technology needs to be improved, which requires high-definition, real-time maps, they said.

    The Iowa DOT already has partnered with digital mapping company Here Technologies to produce high-definition maps of the corridor between Cedar Rapids and Iowa City.

    Scott Nelson, HERE’s head of digital transportation infrastructure, said autonomous vehicles will one-day connect to each other and share information, creating “a living map.” That matters if self-driving cars will have to face changing road conditions, such as snow.

    “We’re now at a point where this map is being updated and this information is pushed out in days, then in minutes. Soon, it will be seconds,” Nelson said.

    McGehee said he will travel to Washington, D.C., to pitch a President Dwight Eisenhower-style plan to the U.S. DOT to include high-definition mapping of every United States highway into a proposed infrastructure bill.


    Previously from the Iowa Ideas magazine: Are Iowans ready to get behind the wheel of autonomous cars?


    “As we increase the levels of automation over time, that high-definition mapping is key to the redundancy required to do safe driving of the automated vehicle,” said McGehee, who used the autopilot feature on the simulator’s Tesla Model S 75D to drive to Thursday’s event.

    Legislative hurdles, in addition to technological ones, could cause slowdowns when autonomous vehicles drive the state’s roadways. Iowa currently requires “active physical control” of a vehicle, meaning someone needs to be behind a steering wheel, Marler said.

    “We talked to some trucking companies who have a business model where there is no one in the driver’s seat. At least under our current legislation, that’s not an area we would consider active physical control,” he said. “That’s a challenge right now to be able to test some of those technologies in Iowa.”

    The Iowa City metro also has received one of 10 autonomous vehicle proving ground designations from the U.S. DOT.

    Tom Banta, director of strategic growth at Iowa City Area Development Group, said the designation could lead to more autonomous vehicle research — meaning more high-quality jobs — coming to the area.

    “We see that as a tremendous opportunity for the region as it relates to economic development,” Banta said.

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