University of Iowa driving simulator adds to its tool kit

Tesla will be included in research for autonomous vehicles

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IOWA CITY — The University of Iowa’s National Advanced Driving Simulator picked up another tool in its research efforts — a brand-new Tesla Model S 75D.

The white 2017 electric car is nothing special — anyone can buy the car off the lot — but driving simulator director Daniel McGehee said it represents another key tool for the program’s efforts in autonomous vehicle research.

“We have a fleet of vehicles that we use for a range of research. I think that’s an important part of this, these are production cars,” McGehee said.

However, much of the Tesla’s autonomous technology, and that’s present in the simulator’s 2017 Volvo XC90, can be traced back to the NADS center.

On Monday, McGehee and others in attendance — including officials from Iowa City, Coralville, North Liberty and Johnson County — toured the NADS facilities, including the control room and massive ground vehicle simulator.

But they also were looking to the future, namely how the U.S. Department of Transportation’s January designation of the driving simulator and Corridor as one of the nation’s 10 proving ground pilot sites for autonomous vehicle research will impact local communities.

Tom Banta, director of strategic growth for Iowa City Area Development Group, said the nation’s autonomous car technology is expected to create billions of dollars in positive economic impact over the next several years.

“Ultimately, as a local economic development agency, we want to take advantage of that and, quite frankly, get our unfair share of that to the extent that we can,” Banta said.

The plan is to use the latest designation, along with the driving simulator’s history of research, to attract small to mid-size startup companies focused on autonomous vehicle technology.

McGehee said some of those start-ups could be grown locally at the University of Iowa.

“With the next generation of driving, now we have thousands of small companies contributing to the next generation of car,” McGehee said. “We want to create the climate and the culture for that kind of ambition, a place to come and know that the cities and the counties and the state can provide the economic support, but also the political support.”

Local support has been ample. Officials with many of the elected bodies present Monday several years ago pledged support to the driving simulator’s efforts.

In addition, the Iowa Department of Transportation has made a commitment to autonomous car technology.

But Johnson County Supervisor Janelle Rettig said the industry needs more to succeed.

“I hear from people all the time — they’re ready for it, they understand the technology we have today is not the technology we’re going to have tomorrow,” she said. “I think if you want to make this click, we need bold leadership at the federal level.”

As for McGehee, the simulator’s Toyota Camry will be out on Interstate 380 this fall to begin testing digital mapping conducted on the interstate earlier this year.

Last year, the DOT entered into a roughly $2 million agreement with Chicago’s digital mapping company HERE to perform digital high definition mapping of I-380 between Iowa City and Cedar Rapids.

The DOT also plans to collect real-time data such as weather, crashes, obstructions and work zones to create advanced predictive modeling — the data inputs autonomous vehicles use to make decisions.

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