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Corridor's autonomous car research 'very competitive'

Leaders say loss of Obama-era designation won't hamper efforts

Joe Meidlinger (top), program coordinator, points out something Wednesday to Diane Johnson, of Iowa City, as she drives a simulator during the 20th anniversary open house at the National Advanced Driving Simulator in Coralville. This area is one of 10 automated vehicle proving grounds in the nation that have lost that Obama-era designation. However, leaders say the center is in a good position to compete nationally for funding grants from the U.S. Department of Transportation. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Joe Meidlinger (top), program coordinator, points out something Wednesday to Diane Johnson, of Iowa City, as she drives a simulator during the 20th anniversary open house at the National Advanced Driving Simulator in Coralville. This area is one of 10 automated vehicle proving grounds in the nation that have lost that Obama-era designation. However, leaders say the center is in a good position to compete nationally for funding grants from the U.S. Department of Transportation. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
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CORALVILLE — Less than two years after being named one of 10 automated vehicle proving grounds in the nation, the Corridor and University of Iowa’s National Advanced Driving Simulator — as well as the other nine entities on the list — have been stripped of that designation.

Even so, local officials say they don’t expect the announcement to have any impact on efforts by the Coralville-based center and the state to remain a leader in autonomous vehicle research.

In addition, those with the U.S. Department of Transportation say the hope is to open up more federal funding opportunities for entities like the National Advanced Driving Simulator.

“I would say it won’t have any impact,” said Dan McGehee, professor and director at NADS. “In any research enterprise, in a big lab like ours, there’s a lot of momentum in the system, so the reality is — whether we have that or not — we will continue to work with our industry and government sponsors and we think we’re very highly competitive in this area, so it’s really not an issue.”

The U.S. DOT earlier this month released its latest automated vehicle policy, dubbed Automated Vehicles 3.0. The policy included plans to drop the 2017 designations, which grew out of President Barack Obama’s administration.

The Preparing for the Future of Transportation report states that “given the rapid increase in automated vehicle testing activities in many locations, there is no need for U.S. DOT to favor particular locations or to pick winners and losers.” The department would no longer recognize the designations, it said.

Finch Fulton, deputy assistant secretary for transportation policy with the U.S. DOT, said the department hopes to open up $60 million in grant opportunities for automated vehicle demonstrations. A notice of could go out yet this year, with the department looking to focus on data sharing and safety.

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With the elimination of the proving grounds designation, those funds will be spread nationwide, he said.

“As we do this and as we look to leverage our limited research dollars, we want to make the biggest impact,” Fulton said, adding it’s likely some of the former proving grounds will apply and be considered.

When announced in January 2017, the proving ground designation was touted by those with the Iowa Department of Transportation, NADS and the Iowa City Area Development Group as recognition of the Corridor’s efforts in automated vehicle research and a potential economic development driver for the area.

Tom Banta, ICAD’s director of strategic growth, said the designation did provide a level of awareness and helped start dialogue with some companies in the automation field interested in possibly locating here.

But the designations never came with guaranteed funding, he added.

“There was never money tied to that. The real value here is that there is money now, we feel we are very well-positioned to get our fair share of that,” Banta said. “Obviously we’re partial to our own backyard, but I do feel confident that we will be able to be very competitive in that process.”

Regardless of the designation, state and local officials said it is business as usual for those focused on automated vehicle research.

“We continue to look at ways that we can plan for a future that incorporates automated vehicle technologies,” Andrea Henry, Iowa DOT’s director of strategic communications, said in an email. “That includes being supportive and tuned into with the research and work that is being done on automated vehicle technologies in the state particularly the work that NADS has been doing.”

Henry also noted that Iowa’s Advisory Council on Automated Transportation held its first meeting this summer. The council was created to provide guidance, recommendations and strategic oversight of automated transportation activities in Iowa.

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The U.S. DOT report was created to support safe, reliable, efficient and cost-effective integration of automation into the nation’s road transportation system, according to the report. The document also indicates the department’s interest in removing barriers, such as what it considers unnecessary regulations, to automated vehicle applications.

Following-too-closely laws like Iowa’s have been criticized for preventing the application of automated vehicle platooning — or grouping vehicles that communicate with each other close together at high speeds so they can coordinate movements.

Fulton said the administration is more likely to let states address their own rules while researchers focus on the vehicles and systems.

“We want to respect the states’ authorities, because we regulate the technology and they regulate the behaviors and operations,” he said.

l Comments: (319) 398-8309; mitchell.schmidt@thegazette.com

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