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Special Report: Sharing I-380 with self driving big rigs

Self Driving Vehicles

Driving down I-380 can be terrifying at times, what with all the distractions drivers have nowadays.

The increasing rate of driver fatalities in the Hawkeye State -- we've already surpassed the 2015 total of 320 with a little less than two months left -- is concerning to representatives at the Iowa Department of Transportation, who are teaming up with a mapping firm in an attempt to improve safety on Iowa's roadways.

In partnership with Here of North America, a digital mapping company, and several other key players -- including the University of Iowa and Iowa State University as well as various colleges throughout the state -- the Iowa DOT is participating in an unprecedented project, transforming a stretch of roughly 20 miles of Interstate 380 between Cedar Rapids and Iowa City into a testing zone for self-driving vehicles.

A fleet of freight will be outfitted with technology that operates similarly to a cell phone's GPS, navigating the roads by communicating with surroundings, except standard global positioning systems have about three-foot margins, give or take. This technology will reduce that to about 20 centimeters.

The idea of vehicles maneuvering in high-speed traffic without human control is certainly an unfamiliar proposition, and to many, the thought is downright terrifying.

However, various industry experts insist the implementation promises to enhance driver safety.

“We know that 94 percent of crashes are tied in some way to driver error or driver choice," said Scott Marler, the director of traffic operations for the Iowa DOT. "These technologies have the promise to reduce crashes by as much as 80 percent.”

The potential to reduce last year's deaths by 256 is all the motivation the project leads need to move forward.

The first series of demonstrations are simply that -- demonstrations. There will still be men and women behind the wheel, with the technology guiding the vehicle, allowing for human intervention.

The National Advanced Driving Simulator at the University of Iowa has been testing automation since 1994, and the program's director, Dan McGehee, describes the endeavor as linking two or three trucks together, getting their systems communicating harmoniously in order to increase safety and efficiency.

The focus for this I-380 transformation is freight, but not all are convinced the project's aim of improving safety will come to fruition.

“Right now, almost 75 percent of the accidents that actually occur with commercial motor vehicles are the four-wheeled vehicles fault," said Dave Figler with West Side Transport. "Is that going to reduce the accidents? Because we’re looking at autonomous trucks right now, not necessarily the four-wheeled vehicles on the interstate.”

Many in the trucking industry are expressing concern about ceding jobs to this cutting-edge technology.

The current shortage of truck drivers leaves room for a mutually beneficial relationship between humans and hardware/software in the minds of some.

“Right now, the transportation and trucking industry is having a really difficult time finding truck drivers," said Amy Lasack with Kirkwood Community College's Trucking Program. "If we’re able to continue to move forward with the driverless technology, that will enable those companies to continue to grow and fill some of these positions that there aren’t individuals available to fill.”

Many trucking companies have the capacity to expand according to Lasack, but can't find people interested in driving. She sees the technology as complementary, allowing for more trucks out on the road, should the technology evolve and eventually become driverless.

Figler and others who work in the trucking business aren't worried about the immediate future, saying in his eyes, "this is a decade out."

However, he is concerned if this technology does replace humans, business will suffer.

"We build relationships with customers through face-to-face interaction," said Figler. "If all we are is a truck without a person, how can we create those relationships?"

Many with intimate knowledge of the trucking field have seen the evolution of the industry, and say this is the next step to that chain.

"Here at Kirkwood, we adapt to the industry," said Lasack. "We haven't had those conversations about how we'll change just yet, but we will if need be."

Lasack speculated truck training programs may become more about maintenance of the vehicles, and may introduce how to monitor the technology, but concedes the customer relationships may suffer if humans no longer deliver freight.

McGehee at the National Advanced Driving Simulator says these concerns are a long way out

"This is not an overnight thing where all of a sudden robots will be taking the roadways of Iowa," said McGehee, adding safety is the most important facet of this implementation.

“We’re looking at one of the highest fatality rates in Iowa across the nation," said McGehee. "This automation doesn’t get sleepy. It doesn’t get drunk. It doesn’t get distracted.”

The transformation will occur within the next six months to a year according to Iowa DOT representatives, with no visible changes occurring since the technology will operate with Cloud-based software.

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