NEWS

Iowa primed to be first in nation for driverless cars

Road project may pave the way for driverless car requirements: 'This may be the opportunity we need'

Ron Medford Director of Safety for Google’s Self-Driving Car Project explains how Google’s system works as he gives a presentation during a seminar at the University of Iowa’s Pappajohn Business Building in Iowa City, Iowa, on Friday, April 17, 2015. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Ron Medford Director of Safety for Google’s Self-Driving Car Project explains how Google’s system works as he gives a presentation during a seminar at the University of Iowa’s Pappajohn Business Building in Iowa City, Iowa, on Friday, April 17, 2015. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — Iowa is well equipped to become the first state in the nation with a roadway certified for driverless cars, and researchers this week met with government and transportation officials to discuss the possibilities.

Roads certified for automated cars must be highly mapped to allow the vehicles equipped with sensors, lasers, and radars to know their precise position, said Daniel McGehee, director of the University of Iowa’s Human Factors and Vehicle Safety Research Division.

With a vision in place to revamp the I-80 interchange with I-380, McGehee said, “This may be the opportunity we need.”

At a Friday presentation on the UI campus involving international experts discussing the future of autonomous vehicles, McGehee said his team earlier this week met with Gov. Terry Branstad, Iowa Department of Transportation officials, and Swedish authorities on the topic of driverless cars.

Sweden has the only certified roadway for autonomous vehicles in the world, but McGehee said, “We have the opportunity to do it in the (Eastern Iowa) corridor.”

In the more immediate future, McGehee said, UI researchers this summer will be driving a semi-automated 2016 Volvo XC90 around Iowa City for scientific purposes and technical demonstrations.

The vehicle includes numerous “smart” features like drowsy-driver detection, an auto-brake-at-intersections feature, and a touch screen that uses smartphone-like features for things like navigation, audio and phone uses.

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Trent Victor, senior technical leader of crash avoidance for Volvo Cars, spoke during the Friday presentation on the UI campus about Volvo’s aim to eliminate all crashes using vehicle automation.

“By 2020, no one should be killed or seriously injured in a new Volvo,” Victor said. “We have a long-term vision that no new Volvos should crash.”

Victor said one of the problems vehicle automation aims to address is distracted drivers.

“We see there is a need to be able to do something else while you’re driving,” he said. “So we’re giving people the ability to relax or do something else … because that’s what they’re already doing. So let’s do it safely.”

Volvo in 2017 has a plan to put 100 driverless cars on the roads in Gothenburg, Sweden, Victor said. The cars will use a network of computer processors, GPS systems, and a Cloud-based network to safety commute in even “the most complicated scenarios.”

Passengers won’t need to pay attention to the road, even though there will be a backup solution allowing them to take control if anything fails, Victor said. But he and other experts said Friday the idea is to make driverless cars safer than those operated by human drivers.

“If a kid is darting out in the street, our sensors will see it before a person would and brake faster,” said Ron Medford, safety director of the self-driving car for Google, which announced last year its plans to build its own automated vehicle.

The car will not be able to “defy physics” and avoid hitting unavoidable obstacles. But, Medford said, a system of censors will be programmed to see everything in its vicinity.

“Our vision at night will be much better than human vision,” he said.

The cars are being programmed to hand gestures, like those from bicyclists, and mobile stop signs — like those on school buses.

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“We are predicting the behavior of everything around us every few seconds,” Medford said.

Test subjects given rides in a driverless Google car expressed confidence in its safety, according to a candid video of their reactions played Friday during the UI discussion.

“There is nothing that makes you feel the least bit threatened,” one man said. “I’m totally in love with this concept.”

l Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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