Iowa Hits the Accelerator on Driverless Cars

Rasmus Schlutter, Reporter

Scanning lasers, advanced image processors, high resolution mapping. Technology you would expect to adorn an intergalactic spaceship is making its way to Iowa. In April, automotive experts and state officials met at the Pappajohn Business Center to discuss introducing driverless cars in Iowa.

Iowa is in a unique position to become the first state to certify driverless cars on roadways.

“Compared to California and other big states, we have a really compressed bureaucracy,” said Daniel McGehee, Director of Human Factors and Vehicle Safety Research at Iowa. “I can go to the Iowa D.O.T. and we talk about these transit issues and make administrative decisions very quickly.”

The reduced costs of scanning lasers and high resolution mapping have also made driverless cars significantly more affordable. Both of these technologies are used to map the road and detect other vehicles traveling nearby, allowing a driverless car to safely navigate the roadway.

Volvo has been taking advantage of these technologies, and is moving forward on an autonomous car project in Sweden.

“There is a huge interest in the possibilities of self-driving cars,” said Trent Victor, Head of Safety at Volvo. “It’s an easy to understand concept that most people can really relate to and discuss.”

But with that interest comes many questions.

“There are a lot of what-if, how does it work, or will it be safe questions,” Victor said. “But what people don’t necessarily realize is how many fantastic semi-autonomous and autonomous functions are already on the market.”

Features like cruise control, city safety cameras, and pilot assist have been gradually  introduced over the last few decades.

“[Introducing driverless cars] is not really that different from when we introduce other types of functionality or features,” Victor said.

Victor has been working closely with Iowa automotive authorities like McGehee to discuss how to best implement this new technology.

“We’re really interested in the legal process they went through,” McGehee said. “The city of Gothenburg is a different entity than the overall government, so we looked at how they addressed municipal liabilities and went about educating drivers.”

Though levels of automation in cars have existed for some time, there are still potential obstacles with the widespread use of more autonomous vehicles.

“One of the major issues we’re looking into is how to go about educating drivers about these new technologies and get people comfortable with them,” McGehee said.

Automotive experts will not only have to educate the public, but convince Iowa government officials about the potential in driverless cars.

“It will take some time to get them educated on what the issues are and I think everyone is a bit worried about how these vehicles work,” McGehee said.

Swedish automotive authorities encountered some similar problems when they first began testing driverless cars on roadways.

“There are some new challenges with autonomous driving, or AD, like regulation, liability, and maintenance or preparation of road infrastructure to suit AD,” said Victor.

Because of this, automotive authorities have introduced the “Drive Me” project in Gothenburg, Sweden. The project, set to begin in 2017, will put Volvo customers behind the wheel of 100 driverless cars for a year.

“It will give us a chance to test and learn,” Victor said.

Back in the United States, McGehee and other experts are planning to launch a national autonomous car education campaign this summer called “” in order to better educate the public about the technologies used in driverless cars.

“We want to give people an idea of how individual technologies like adaptive cruise control and lane tracking systems work,” McGehee said. “We really want to design it so everyone becomes more interested and excited about driverless cars.”

The public is becoming increasingly open to the idea of driverless cars, but there are still some remaining concerns.

“I think it’s difficult to replace human instinct and reactions, but if I was sure the car was safe, I would drive it,” said Nathan Cremers ‘17.

While testing is only set to begin in Iowa City this summer, many experts like McGehee are thinking about the potential of driverless cars in Iowa.

“We’re hoping to create a roadway environment that not only attracts testing for academic research, but will ultimately bring companies here to do driving,” McGehee said.

And already, companies are showing interest in testing automotive technologies on Iowa’s roadways.

“We are currently working with a company called Peloton Technologies,” McGehee said. “They’re looking to do some highway testing, and we were able to get them together with our D.O.T to talk about how their systems work and do a safety analysis, and then hopefully put them on road here in Iowa.”

But beyond the economic benefits, the overwhelming motivation for the development of driverless cars is to reduce traffic collisions.

“Over 95% of car crashes are due to driver error,” McGehee said. “Higher levels of automation will help reduce crashes, injuries, and fatalities. These systems can take over where the human driver has limits.”