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The road to autonomous cars: Are Iowans ready to get behind the wheel?

"Until you really see it, I think it's really hard to have an idea if you can trust it"

Aug 20, 2018 at 3:58 pm
    Automated Vehicle Research project manager Ashley McDonald watches the video screen as she keeps her hands off the steering wheel while a Volvo XC90 SUV test vehicle self parks along a street near the University of Iowa's National Advanced Driving Simulator, 2401 Oakdale Boulevard, in Iowa City, Iowa, on Tuesday. July 25, 2017. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

    Decades ago, electronic traction control and automatic emergency braking systems were cutting edge and expensive, recalled Daniel McGehee, as he sat in his office at the University of Iowa’s National Advanced Driving Simulator, or NADS, and reflected on his nearly 30 years researching and testing autonomous vehicles.

    Today, he noted, those systems are standard equipment in most vehicles.

    “Ten years ago you had to pay $100,000 for a car that had that kind of technology and now the Chevy Spark is $16,000 and it has that type of technology,” McGehee said.

    But while early forms of automation in vehicles took years to transition from research facilities such as the world renowned NADS center into low-cost vehicles, emerging and evolving technologies like lane awareness and adaptive cruise control are exploding into the market.

    “That’s really where Iowa has a very prominent role, getting the word out, because these technologies are sort of flooding into cars,” McGehee said. “Drivers are overwhelmed.”

    Proponents of autonomous vehicles say the technologies eliminate human errors, save lives and enhance traffic efficiencies.

    But are drivers completely ready to hand over their car keys to a computer — to “driverless” cars? And what will it take to get them ready?

    Varying levels of automation

    First, though, what makes a vehicle “autonomous”?

    The Society of Automated Engineers, or SAE International, has identified five levels of automated vehicle technology that are considered the standard for many automotive engineers, governments and other interested entities including the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

    Most technology in today’s vehicles — such as lane awareness-systems, vehicle-detection functions and adaptive cruise control — fall under the first tier in the SAE International standard.

    As those systems are combined, vehicles come closer to the standard’s second tier — partial automation, said Kristin Kolodge, executive director of driver interaction and human machine interaction research with J.D. Power and Associates, a marketing information services agency.

    “We’re kind of notching up that ladder,” Kolodge said.

    In SAE’s third tier, called conditional automation, the vehicle’s onboard systems can carry out almost all aspects of driving, but a human driver must be present to respond appropriately and intervene when necessary.

    It’s this midlevel tier — when the vehicle has more control, but the driver must remain attentive — that has some of those in the automated technology field a bit apprehensive, McGehee said.

    “We know humans are bad monitors ... we get easily distracted,” McGehee said. “That level three is really this zone of ambiguity for designers because we know that we don’t want drivers to be monitoring, but at the same time, the dichotomy is we need to have some sort of transitionary between full automation. But it looks like we’re probably going to skip over three altogether to avoid that.”

    Level four is considered high automation, which sees the vehicle taking on all driving tasks and possessing the ability to intervene when necessary — without help from the human driver.

    Full automation is the point the vehicle can perform in the same capacity as a human driver in all conditions.

    But McGehee said there are some challenges with the SAE International model. Depending on the available data and road conditions, a single vehicle can exist within different levels of automation.

    For example, the roadway systems of a modern Tesla place the vehicle in SAE’s second tier of automation. However, when that same car is preprogrammed to back out of the owner’s driveway with zero driver interaction, the vehicle is practicing full automation.

    “What is driverless? The definition is so vast and there tends to be an over-marketing by some folks ... the capabilities and the realities are quite different,” McGehee said. “Cars can be very briefly in those different modes.”

    Meanwhile, as vehicles become more automated, the level of acceptance from the general public begins to vary, depending on a number of elements including customer age and experience with such technologies.

    Tom Banta, director of strategic growth for the Iowa City Area Development Group (ICAD), contended that as cars inch closer to becoming driverless, dispelling myths and building acceptance of such technologies will be key to keeping drivers onboard.

    One thing for certain is that fully driverless cars are still very much science fiction, he said.

    “I think part of it is just dispelling this notion that you’re going to wake up tomorrow and cars are going to be driving themselves on the highway. It’s going to be a long cycle,” Banta said. “The life cycle of adoption is significant, and I think part of the message to the general public is this stuff is coming, but it’s not going to appear overnight.”


    A mixed opinion

    While researchers such as McGehee push cars closer to full autonomy, the general public definitely has varying levels of trust in such technology.

    According to J.D. Power’s U.S. Tech Choice Studies, which survey consumers who bought or leased a new vehicle in the past five years, one of the biggest factors to consumers’ acceptance of autonomous vehicle technology is their age.

    J.D. Power’s 2017 study found 43 percent of millennial and post-millennial consumers were supportive of full self-driving vehicles, compared to only seven percent of baby boomers.

    “From a generational aspect we’re seeing a higher level of interest and consumer acceptance from the younger generations — so from your Generation Y and your Generation Z — into these levels of automation and they’re most interested in getting to that full level of automation,” said J.D. Power’s Kolodge. “And it’s starkly lower when you think about the older generations.”

    J.D. Power’s 2016 study found only 27 percent of Gen-X, 18 percent of millennials and 11 percent of post-millennials say they “definitely would not” trust autonomous vehicle technology — compared to 39 percent of baby boomers and 40 percent of pre-boomers.

    However, Terry Murrin, deputy state coordinator with AARP Iowa, said that in his experience reluctance to trust automated vehicles isn’t limited to senior drivers. There are drivers across all generations that embrace the idea, he added.

    “There are certainly folks who are very apprehensive about the kinds of things that they might encounter with a semi-autonomous or autonomous vehicle, and that includes all of us,” Murrin said. “I don’t see a universal avoidance of technology, I do see a fair amount of enthusiasm for it.”

    “Trust is fragile, it takes a long time to build and it’s easy to lose someone’s trust."

    - Kristin Kolodge

    Executive director of driver interaction and human machine interaction research with J.D. Power and Associates


    Murrin added that automated vehicles can help older drivers, who often find their ability to drive decline as they age, remain behind the wheel.

    “The reality of it is we’re all aging and throughout the aging process things change. What we’re trying to do is make sure that people who are experiencing changes are aware of some of the advantages that they may have in things like autonomous vehicles or just simply some of the technology assists that are available and have been available in their cars for quite a while,” Murrin said.

    But as J.D. Power’s 2017 report found, trust in automated technology is fickle. According to the report, 11 percent more post-millennial consumers and 9 percent more pre-boomer consumers said they “definitely would not” trust automated technology compared to 2016.

    “But we are seeing some increased level of skepticism across nearly all generations when we look at last year’s results, versus what we’re seeing this year,” Kolodge said. “We even saw (millennials) double in the number of people who said they definitely could not trust a full self-driving vehicle.”

    Building that trust among drivers is critical to the autonomous vehicle industry, J.D. Power’s Kolodge said.

    Part of that trust comes from positive experiences with elements of automation, which becomes more common as those technologies are integrated into more vehicles and become more accessible.

    “Trust is fragile, it takes a long time to build and it’s easy to lose someone’s trust,” she said.

    One challenge is simply how fast automated technology is changing, Murrin said.

    “Anything that was published three years ago about something that was cutting edge is out of date because it’s already here. Some of this stuff that we thought was out in the future a couple of years ago is ordinary at this point,” he said.

    Meanwhile, a 2016 University of Iowa Technology Demonstration Study, conducted by the NADS center, found that familiarity with automated vehicle technology can build a foundation for trust.

    The study surveyed participants’ views on five automated technologies before and after reading the owner’s manual and/or observing a driver use the systems during a ride-along demonstration, participant knowledge of the five technologies — adaptive cruise control, blind spot monitoring, lane keeping assist, parallel park assist and rear cross-traffic alert.

    At the end of the study, their level of trust had increased by about 170 percent.

    What’s more, by the end of the study, participant ratings on usefulness significantly increased for adaptive cruise control and parallel parking assist. Ratings for the other technologies were relatively high at the beginning of the study.

    Participant ratings of trust also significantly increased for adaptive cruise control, lane keep assist and parallel parking assist and rear cross-traffic alert systems.

    Ratings of apprehension of using all five technologies significantly decreased as well.

    “That sort of told us (that) the more we can get people in these vehicles, and see the technology, hopefully that’s going to impact the public perception of what this technology really means,” said Ashley McDonald, project manager with NADS automated vehicle research. “Until you really see it, I think it’s really hard to have an idea if you can trust it.”

    Progress in the fields

    One industry that quietly has been embracing automated vehicle technology has been Iowa’s top industry — agriculture.

    David Miller, director of research and commodity services with Iowa Farm Bureau, said features such as GPS navigation systems, paired with steering controls, can steer a modern tractor with an accuracy of plus or minus two inches while sensors operate individual planters and sprayers to eliminate waste.

    “There’s a lot of autonomy, not only in the steering of the tractor, but in the operation of other elements of the vehicle. I don’t think it’s going to be a big leap for them to move to, if you will, an autonomous unit where they don’t even have to be in the tractor cab,” Miller said. “I think farmers are going to be one of the quickest ones to adopt this whole idea of a fully autonomous vehicle.”

    Miller acknowledged the difference between the amount of technology needed to integrate autonomy into a tractor, which is often a solo vehicle in a field, to highway-speed passenger vehicles. But he added that progress begins in the fields.

    “I think at 60 to 70 miles per hour we’re going to be a little uncomfortable with taking our hands off the wheel (of a car), and much more so than at four or five miles per hour in a tractor,” he added.


    Why go autonomous?

    Scott Marler, director of the Iowa Department of Transportation’s office of traffic operations, said the department’s interest in automated vehicles stems from the department’s mission to enhance safety and mobility on the state’s highways.

    The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found drivers to be the critical reason for 94 percent of motor vehicle crashes nationwide from 2005 to 2007.

    The administration also estimates new safety systems such as advanced braking or lane departure warning systems and vehicle-to-vehicle connection technology — which allows vehicles to “talk” to each other by sharing speed and position data — would prevent or reduce the severity of 80 percent of those crashes.

    ICAD’s Banta said work in automated vehicle research also presents a potential economic driver for the region and state.

    The first step will be honing in on certain areas such as freight transportation and — as the Iowa Farm Bureau’s Miller said — agricultural use.

    “We can’t be all things to everyone. Let’s figure out what we want to be and then go align with those companies and try to solve those issues,” he said.

    Marler said another added benefit of automated vehicles — which experts say can move vehicles faster and more efficiently than human-operated vehicles — is the possibility that such technology may reduce capacity demands on the state’s highways.

    Automated vehicle proving grounds

    The U.S. Department of Transportation in January designated 10 automated vehicle proving grounds. The designation is to encourage the testing of new automated vehicle technologies.

    City of Pittsburgh and the Thomas D. Larson Pennsylvania Transportation Institute

    Texas AV Proving Grounds Partnership

    U.S. Army Aberdeen Test Center in Maryland

    American Center for Mobility at Willow Run in Michigan

    Contra Costa Transportation Authority and GoMentum Station in California

    San Diego Association of Governments

    Iowa City Area Development Group

    University of Wisconsin-Madison

    Central Florida Automated Vehicle Partners

    North Carolina Turnpike Authority


    That could be a huge game changer for a state such as Iowa, which has an immense and costly backlog of roads and bridges in need of repair.

    “When there are enough (autonomous cars) out there, when we have pretty good market penetration, our roadways will be much safer and much more efficient and quite literally we might not need to build as many lanes to accommodate the traffic volumes,” he said. “That possibility is very real.”

    Last year, the Iowa DOT entered into a roughly $2 million agreement with the Chicago digital mapping company HERE to perform digital high-definition mapping of Interstate 380 between Iowa City and Cedar Rapids. The University of Iowa and Iowa State University also are involved in the effort.

    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.

    When complete, the stretch of I-380 will be the first in the state to be fully mapped for autonomous vehicle traffic. Pilot testing on the corridor could begin later this year, Marler said.

    High-def mapping will bring automated technology to a new level, giving vehicles the ability to receive information on traffic conditions miles in advance, he added.

    “The map is a critical part to really help an autonomous vehicle operate in the most efficient manner,” he said. “We think of high-definition mapping as an additional sensor for autonomous vehicles — it’s just this sensor can see over hills and around curves, whereas none of your other sensors are able to do that.”

    Efforts in advancing automated technology in Iowa by the Iowa DOT, NADS and ICAD have garnered the Corridor special designation by the U.S. Department of Transportation as one of the nation’s 10 proving ground pilot sites to encourage testing of such technology.

    Marler said the advancements in autonomous vehicles shows no sign of slowing down in the private sector, so officials and researchers with the state, NADS and economic development agencies such as ICAD want to be as prepared as possible.

    “It’s our belief we are at an inflection point — a tipping point — if you will ... We believe this is going to be completely transformational for the transportation system in Iowa and in the nation,” Marler said. “Everything will work a little bit differently in the future as a result of these technologies and it’s incredibly exciting that we, at this time in our history, have the chance and opportunity to be a part of this and help these technologies develop.”

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