University of Iowa researchers focus on the transition from self-driving to manual modes in vehicles

Two-year project includes work on notifications, timing

John Gaspar, photographed Tuesday outside the National Advanced Driving Simulator in Coralville, is director of human fa
John Gaspar, photographed Tuesday outside the National Advanced Driving Simulator in Coralville, is director of human factors research at NADS and lead researcher for a project researching technology that helps vehicles transition from an automated to a manual state. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

CORALVILLE — The way a future car in Alabama or Wyoming goes from automated to manual driving could be the result of research happening on Oakdale Boulevard in Coralville.

After receiving a $1.45 million grant from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration earlier this month, the University of Iowa’s National Advanced Driving Simulator is working on improvements to the “transition control” between cars’ automated and manual functions.

A car with some automated driving features is hardly a new concept. Many new cars come with collision detection and lane correction sensors or “adaptive” cruise control that adjusts speed based on circumstances around the car.

“Really the project is about what we sometimes refer to as ‘partial automation’ or ‘conditional automation,’” said John Gaspar, director of human factors research at NADS and lead researcher for this project. “These are systems that can perform the driving task under a very specific set of conditions.”

It’s not to be confused with fully automated cars or mostly automated cars — such as the Tesla Model S — that leave little to no work for the person behind the wheel during an entire drive.

As automatic functions expand, so does the need for NADS’s research. Car manufacturers are working on a system, for instance, where cars could automatically handle traffic jams, allowing a driver to sit back and let the car take care of it.

When it comes to getting out of that automated function, however, is where NADS’s research on this project fits in.


“When the vehicles kind of transition out of those situations — so for instance, when the car leaves that traffic jam — it essentially has to give back power to the human,” Gaspar said. He is specifically looking for the “best way” of making that transition.

An ongoing NADS project already is looking at traffic jams. The October grant will allow Gaspar and other researchers to specifically look at the notification system in the transition from automated to manual driving.

Right now, Gaspar said the automated-to-manual transition takes “somewhere between 10 to 15 seconds.” A driver may be on the phone or checking email while the car is in an automated state, so the process could take longer than simply turning off cruise control.

“One major goal is to identify what is the minimum amount of time that drivers need to transition into control,” Gaspar said.

He anticipates the “transition control” project taking about two years, with the technology not far from being in someone’s next new car.

“The systems that we’re studying in these studies ... are in production by many manufacturers,” Gaspar said. “They haven’t been readily deployed yet, but they’re kind of the next generation of some of the technology that are already present on many vehicles.”

Under a U.S. Department of Transportation $7 million grant earlier this year, NADS also is conducting research on automated driving on rural roads. That research route will run through Iowa City, Kalona, Riverside and Hills.

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