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SPECIAL REPORT: Automated cars

A University of Iowa Tesla research vehicle that features more than a dozen driver assist features parked in downtown Cedar Rapids. 

Right now, there is a collaborative effort to put the next generation of transportation on Corridor roadways. It might seem like science fiction but the fact is this region is paving the way for autonomous—or self-driving vehicles.

Thousands of cars and trucks travel on I-380 between Cedar Rapids and Iowa City every day. And a few already have the capability of doing it with little driver input.

“If we want to change lanes, all I have to do is put on my turn signal,” explained John Gaspar, a University of Iowa Research Scientist who gave CBS2/FOX28 a test ride in the College of Engineering’s Tesla research vehicle. “What (the car is) going to do is it’s going to look to my left—basically my blind-spot area--to see if it’s clear and it’s going to execute that lane change just like that.”

It’s mind-blowing to see what all the driver assistance features on the vehicle can do. The person behind the wheel still has to be engaged, but the Tesla can change lanes, speed up, slow down, park and cruise like it has a mind of its own.

Anyone can buy a car like this and much of the research that made it happen can be traced to the UI’s National Advanced Driving Simulator. “All of the technologies that we’re seeing come into vehicles today at one point or another came through the University of Iowa for testing or original development,” said Daniel McGehee, Director of the NADS.

That was key to the Corridor securing one of only ten autonomous vehicle proving ground designations from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Already, I-380 has been digitally mapped to facilitate further research.

Scott Marler with the Iowa DOT recently offered his insight during a panel discussion on autonomous vehicles at the Iowa Ideas Conference in Cedar Rapids. With 95 percent of crashes attributed to driver error, he sees the research as a way to make our highways safer.

“If we think about these new technologies—when we have weather, when we have crashes, when we have obstructions in the roadway, how does that translate to what a driver experiences in a vehicle and eventually decisions that the vehicle will be making as it reacts to these events,” said Marler.

McGehee told CBS2/FOX28 that we won’t see fully automated, self-driving cars in regular traffic for decades. But there are certain areas where we will see incremental changes in automation…and Iowa holds promise.

“Interstate 80, Interstate 35, I-380, those are limited access freeways where we know that there are not cars going to be pulling out in front of you, pedestrians. That kind of roadway is where we’re going to see the first level of automation increase.”

In addition to safety, experts see autonomous vehicles as a way to improve efficiency in the commercial trucking industry. And while some fear that will eventually mean fewer jobs for drivers, others see the Corridor’s proving ground designation as an opportunity to bring more high-skilled research and development jobs to the area.

“There are a lot of different entities working to solve this,” said Tom Banta, Director of Strategic Growth for the Iowa City Area Development Group (ICAD). “There are a lot of implications from safety to the more efficient movement of goods and people and so we see this as an industry of the future that we’re early stage. We can help build and attract those high quality, talented people to the region. We’ve got a number of them…this would just be a new opportunity to explore some pretty cool technology.”

The University of Iowa and the National Safety Council are leading an education campaign around these new technologies. If you’d like to learn more about each feature and how they work, follow this link at MyCarDoesWhat.org.

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