Corridor seeks driverless proving ground status

By Dave DeWitte

The pieces that could bring the Corridor a federal designation as an automated vehicle proving ground are coming together.

The Iowa City Area Development Group (ICAD) is working with local companies and governmental units to respond to a U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) request for proposals for automated vehicle proving grounds.

Automated vehicles are cars, trucks, buses, tractors or other vehicles that can perform some or all of their navigation functions without direct human effort. It’s a technology that has reached maturity and awaits deployment on the nation’s highways, but extensive testing is needed before autonomous vehicles can be integrated with regular traffic.

“The designated proving grounds will collectively form a Community of Practice around safe testing and deployment,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Fox said in the RFP. “This group will openly share best practices for the safe conduct of testing and operations as they are developed, enabling the participants and the general public to learn at a faster rate and accelerating the pace of safe deployment.”

Designated proving grounds will establish a safety officer responsible for a safety management plan, and be required to share their approaches to safety and non-proprietary safety data generated through testing and operation.

ICAD Group would like to see a proving ground designated in the Corridor because it would help advance the safe use of the technology and bring many of the companies involved in the next generation of driverless vehicles to the area.

“We feel we offer the diversity of environment for all these types of vehicles,” said Tom Banta, director of strategic growth for ICAD Group, and leader of the effort.

The organization has already enlisted the support of many local communities and counties in authorizing the use of autonomous vehicles on their streets and highways. More recently, ICAD Group received the support of the Eastern Iowa Airport for the potential use of 2,000 acres of agricultural airport land for autonomous vehicle testing on Dec. 12.

The DOT’s request for proving grounds proposals doesn’t come with any money attached, or at least none guaranteed. Nevertheless, it is attracting interest from some big players. Michigan is proposing a $80 million American Center for Mobility at a former General Motors plant in Ypsilanti Township that will have 2.5 miles of highway loop built for autonomous testing.

Mr. Banta says Corridor has its own strengths to offer, most notably the National Advanced Driving Simulator (NADS) at the University of Iowa. NADS has a collection of world-class driving simulators, and is at the forefront of studying man-machine interaction in the world of motorized travel.

The Corridor is gaining another potential attraction for automated vehicle research in the form of a project the Iowa Department of Transportation is developing with the mapping software company HERE. The effort will develop high-definition digital maps of Interstate 380 between Iowa City and Cedar Rapids to be used for navigation by autonomous vehicles.

Through the involvement of local governments, Mr. Banta said the Corridor’s proposal aims to offer more than just interstate traveling environments. Through the approvals ICAD Group has solicited, autonomous cars will be able to travel underutilized runways at the Iowa City Airport, busy streets through the University of Iowa campus, downtown areas in Iowa City and Cedar Rapids, a closed-loop race course at Hawkeye Downs, and gravel roads traveled by farm vehicles in places like rural Johnson and Washington counties.

The Corridor can also leverage existing relationships that Dan McGehee, director of NADS, has with General Motors, Volvo and other companies in the autonomous vehicle research world, Mr. Banta said. ICAD Group aims to involve not only the UI and IDOT in its proposal, but a list of area trucking companies and software companies that deal with the issues of digital navigation.

Some of the players could include Kirkwood Community College, which offers truck driver training, and Coralville-based software developers ConnectFive and Innovative Software Engineering, which offers telematics solutions used by trucking fleet operators to keep track of vehicle locations, speed and other factors.

Drive Spotter, a Midwest startup building an analytics platform to analyze driver behavior for trucking companies, is also on the roster.

Proposals were due Dec. 19, and Mr. Banta said he expects to hear something back from the DOT early next year. Although it’s possible only one proposal will be chosen initially, Mr. Banta said it’s expected that the department will authorize more than one autonomous vehicle proving ground. The designated location will be required to be open for testing by Jan. 1, 2018,