Steering Iowa toward automated vehicles

An autonomous Tesla research vehicle is parked outside during the Iowa Ideas conference at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hote
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 — A roughly one-mile stretch of Ely Road will be temporarily closed to the public later this month to allow for one of the first rural tests of automated vehicles in the state.

The National Advanced Driving Simulator at the University of Iowa is conducting the research on Ely Road — between Wright Brothers Boulevard E and 76th Avenue Drive SW — starting March 11. It represents one of several ongoing statewide efforts in regard to automated vehicles.

In addition to rural road testing near Ely, state officials have been taking part in advisory council meetings to flesh out how such technologies work in Iowa, and lawmakers are discussing legislation that could further open the door to automated vehicle technology.

“I think we are well-positioned within the broader network of automated vehicle research to really make an impact on how the state moves forward in the space,” said Daniel McGehee, director of the National Advanced Driving Simulator. “We just really want Iowans to be aware of what we’re doing and know they’re really making a difference in the broader automotive safety domain.”

Ely Road

The Linn County Board of Supervisors in December approved the NADS Center’s request to use a portion of Ely Road for autonomous vehicle testing. The section will be closed from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. for about seven weeks.

Cher Carney, a researcher with the National Advanced Driving Simulator, said she couldn’t share specifics on the research study planned for Ely Road, but said researchers will be looking at how drivers interact with a partially automated vehicle while distracted.

Carney said closing the road is to guarantee safety.

“There are certain types of research that require a level of realism that you can’t get from a simulator and require on-road testing. And because we are asking participants to engage in secondary tasks, or purposely distracting them while they are driving, we need to conduct our testing on a closed roadway,” Carney said.

The research should help better understand how a motorist’s engagement with driving is impacted by partial vehicle automation.


What makes the Ely Road research a bit unique, Carney said, is that most automated technology testing traditionally has taken place in more urban settings.

As in many states, much of Iowa’s roadways are rural.

“As Iowans, we think it is really important these types of vehicles and technologies are tested on our rural roadways as well,” Carney said. “Iowa and other rural states have unique transportation challenges, and we want to be sure that rural America is a part of this conversation and our needs are represented.”

Digital mapping

Another area in which automated vehicle research is taking place is in the form of digital mapping on the state’s interstate system.

About two years ago, Chicago’s HERE Technologies began collecting data to create high-definition digital mapping on a portion of Interstate 380 and I-80 near Iowa City and Cedar Rapids.

Jennifer Carter, HERE Technologies industry solutions architect for the public sector, said Thursday the company has completed high-definition mapping on all grade-separated roadways in the state.

That essentially covers Iowa’s interstate system.

Carter said the Iowa Department of Transportation now has access to the roadway data, which will be used to create redundancy in the data points available to automated vehicles.

“That’s the idea, having access to an HD map on the vehicle is helping that vehicle see beyond the range of the sensors and operate more safely on the roadways,” Carter said.

HERE Technologies now has been working with the state to see if interstate workzones can be digitized for automated vehicles, she said.

“What we’ve been working on with the Iowa DOT is helping them figure out ... what’s needed to get to point where our work zone data can be used by an automated vehicle to inform the safe operation of that vehicle,” she said.

Truck Platoons

One possible step forward in automated vehicle technology in Iowa soon could take place in the field of truck platooning.


As with many states, Iowa’s following-too-closely laws currently prohibit a platoon — when two trucks, with onboard automated technology, link up to share a signal. Once connected, the lead truck sets the speed, while the rear truck follows as close as 40 to 50 feet behind.

With the shared signal, the rear truck’s automated braking system can sense the forward vehicle’s brakes to slow down or stop accordingly.

Iowa Code now bans trucks from following within 300 feet of one another, making the practice of platooning illegal.

A 2018 report by Competitive Enterprise Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based public policy organization, found Iowa was one of more than 30 states to not allow automated vehicle platooning. However, House File 387 aims to update the state’s distance requirements for truck drivers.

Rep. Ashley Hinson, R-Marion, said the bill is proposed to help address challenges truck drivers face on congested highways, but also could open the door to vehicle platoons.

Another bill, House File 535, would allow for automated driving systems on Iowa’s roads.

While many researchers say fully autonomous vehicles remain a number of years away, such legislation would help create guidelines for when the technology is ready to take to Iowa’s roads, said Hinson, chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee.

“That is laying the framework for all autonomous vehicles in the future, both fully automatic and driver assisted technology,” Hinson said.

Ongoing discussions

Iowa’s automated vehicle discussion will be an ongoing one, with research taking place and bills being discussed in the statehouse.

In an effort to bring all stakeholders to the table and create a resource for lawmakers, the state last year created Iowa’s Advisory Council on Automated Transportation.


The council includes officials in public safety, economic development, insurance, freight, local government, agriculture and infrastructure.

“It’s really about making us ready for the changes that are coming through automated transportation. It’s about making Iowa an AV-ready state,” said Mark Lowe, Iowa Department of Transportation director.

Lowe said the education element oftentimes is the most challenging aspect of changing policy. It’s common for people to misunderstand what this technology can and cannot do.

“One of the things that will make the conversation the most difficult — and make preparation the most difficult — is just a very natural lack of understanding about what’s happening in the technology,” he said.

Lowe expects commission meetings to be ongoing.

“I think it would be really shortsighted to think that it’s just something that’s going to exist for a year or two,” he said.

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