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At a casual glance, it looks like any Lincoln MKZ. But it's smarter.
'It can talk to a couple school buses in the Solon Community district,” Omar Ahmad said. 'It can talk to a couple of tractors.”
One of a small fleet of test vehicles maintained by the University of Iowa's National Advanced Driving Simulator, or NADS, the Lincoln recently served as a test platform for technology Ahmad, NADS' deputy director, and others expect will improve travel for rural Americans.
'What we're doing in the rural environment is unique in the sense that almost all testing is done in a 12-month climate,” NADS Director Dan McGehee said. 'It's in Silicon Valley, in Florida, in Nevada, in Arizona. The roads are bare and dry 12 months of the year.
'We don't have that. Our economy is more rural, which means driving on gravel roads, driving on roads that are not marked. We see a great opportunity in being a leader in the rural automated driving space.”
A $7 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation is funding NADS research into how automated vehicles operate on rural roads. That work was scheduled to begin this spring, although the schedule may be adjusted due to coronavirus concerns, Ahmad said.
Data collection for the project was put on hold earlier this month, according to a UI spokeswoman.
'This is a very unique project,” McGehee said. 'I think that's why the government selected us. Not only do we have a long history of this work, we have a unique location.”
The federal project complements a state-funded study conducted last year to help identify how driver-assistance technology may be used to help elderly, disabled and other rural residents with mobility issues.
'Our overall goal is to create a large set of data that shows the various challenges an automated vehicle would have to be able to successfully navigate in order to work in a rural environment,” Ahmad said.
'Our bigger motivation is to bring that rural part back into the discussion.”
Even incremental improvements to such present-day driver aids as lane-holding and adaptive cruise control can improve safety and efficiency.
'Something like 19 percent of the population lives in rural areas, and something like half of the fatalities are in rural areas,” Ahmad noted.
'So we're very interested in collecting data that helps us improve safety.”
That's why NADS equipped the Lincoln, the tractor and two Solon school buses with transponders that enabled them to communicate with to each other around blind corners and over hill crests.
'A school bus can have a very simple device placed on it that's able to show the location of the school bus and its speed,” Ahmad said.
'Even though you don't have a line of sight to the school bus, it can still be communicated to the (following vehicle's) driver that, ‘Hey, watch out for a slow or a stopped school bus.' That's not even something that's for an automated vehicle, that's something that would be for the driver.”
Game Boy driving
Why the MKZ instead of the cheaper Ford Fusion on which it's based? Ahmad said it's because the MKZ's 'drive by wire” throttle and transmission controls are more easily adapted for experimental use.
Modifications to the car were 10 times its original cost of about $37,000.
'They're not making their data available to us,” Ahmad said of car manufacturers. 'We had to reverse-engineer.”
The Lincoln's interior is festooned with wires leading to added arrays of button-like sensors mounted about its exterior. There's even a modified Game Boy controller mounted on the console.
'We can actually drive down the road using the Game Boy,” Ahmad said. 'I wouldn't recommend it.”
The bus-and-tractor experiment may seem a long way from headline-grabbing autonomous vehicles, but truly driverless cars aren't happening for a long while yet.
'We don't like ‘driverless,'” Ahmad said of the term.
'We tend to use ‘highly automated' because robots on the road are something would be many, many decades - 50 years, 100 years from now,” McGehee said. 'Where you would get picked up by a self-driving car that would take you on the highway? That's many decades away.”
Specially trained NADS staff serve as safety drivers, sitting behind the wheel to take over should a system fail or become overwhelmed.
Most test sessions occur on a deactivated runway at the Iowa City Municipal Airport, although some call for short stretches of closed public roads - in one case last year, a stretch of Ely Road in Linn County.
'There are certain situations in which the simulator isn't able to give you that sort of data,” Ahmad said. 'The responsible thing was to do it on a closed road.
'We worked with the county folks, and they identified the road. We tried to minimize the disruption to the public and we were able to get the data we needed.”
Other refinements from NADS research will ensure current and future driver-assistance technology functions in all weather and on all roads, including unpaved ones.
'You can't turn every gravel road into a paved road,” Ahmad said. 'You can't turn every paved road into a well-marked road that has perfect lane marking so an automated vehicle can follow those lane markings.
'If we have weather like snow or heavy rain, those lane markings may disappear altogether.”
McGehee took inspiration from Grant Wood's 1935 painting 'Death on the Ridge Road,” a reproduction of which hangs on his office wall. Set near Coggon in Linn County, the painting depicts a big black sedan passing on a hilly curve as a truck approaches from the opposite direction.
'That painting is really interesting in that it covers what we do,” he said. 'It covers the gravity, the crash in the rural context. It's important not only as Iowans but as rural citizens to understand how serious car crashes are.
'Virtually everyone has been touched by car crashes in some way, and rural America is where people mostly die in car crashes.”