Iowa County says yes to driverless cars – USA TODAY
IOWA CITY, Iowa — An eastern Iowa county is one of the first across the USA to open its arms to driverless cars.
Johnson County supervisors said Thursday they want the county on the forefront of research into autonomous vehicles, so they are allowing them on county streets. The cities of Coralville, Iowa City and North Liberty are expected to follow with their own resolutions.
Exactly when driverless vehicles will roll down the streets here can’t be predicted yet. But President Mark Nolte of the Iowa City Area Development Group said the discussion at the Automated Vehicles Symposium in San Francisco last week made one thing clear: “It is absolutely what is coming.”
Nolte was at the symposium to court companies like Google (NASDAQ: GOOG), which needs roads where it can hone its vehicle technology. He hopes to sell the technology giant on the University of Iowa, which houses the National Advanced Driving Simulator, as well as the state’s open spaces.
The national center, home to a range of simulators that offer varied levels of driving realism, has been conducting automated vehicle research for nearly 20 years.
After attending the symposium, Nolte said he thought driverless cars could hit the road within five to 10 years. But first, car companies must prove in a real environment that the cars can work effectively and safely.
“They need for the average person to see it go by and be cool with it,” he said. “It’s one thing to do this in a research facility. It’s another thing to put your kids in an unmanned vehicle and send them down the street.”
Johnson County is not tiny, about 140,000 people at last count, nor is it an intensely urban area. Iowa City is home to about 72,000 people, but the field of automated vehicle research is not new for the University of Iowa.
In the early 1990s, the advanced driving simulator evaluated an automated highway system for the U.S. Department of Transportation. More recently, the simulator has worked on a vehicle-to-vehicle communication project for the Federal Highway Traffic Safety Administration that allows cars to monitor the positions of other vehicles to avoid crashes.
The university’s driving simulator also has a longtime relationship with Swedish researchers and Volvo, which is working on a self-driving car project called “Drive Me,” said Daniel McGehee, director of the human factors and vehicle safety research division at the University of Iowa’s Public Policy Center.
Nolte said he thinks support for autonomous cars will come quickly.
“There will be a point that consumers want it,” he said. “That’s just technology today. Tablets didn’t exist, and then the iPad made it so every company needed to roll one out.”
But plenty of obstacles litter the road ahead.
In an MIT Technology Review story, experts predicted autonomous cars would need decades driving as well as humans if they ever could. A story in London’s Guardian said the FBI has warned that driverless cars could be used as lethal weapons.
But that has not stemmed enthusiasm for them.
Iowa, which does not have any laws prohibiting the testing or operation of self-driving vehicles, would present fewer bureaucratic hurdles than other states, McGehee said.
Four states — California, Florida, Michigan and Nevada — have laws that allow driverless cars. California, Florida and Michigan’s laws permit vehicle testing; Michigan’s law requires a person to be in the car while it’s operating.
Iowa officials are looking at certifying infrastructure to ensure local roads could accommodate the vehicles, McGehee said. Essentially, all that would be required is good, high-contrast paint on the roads that the vehicles can detect.
“So there’s really no extra cost required for the infrastructure,” he said. “Self-driving cars rely on their own sensors — scanning lasers, radar and cameras — to understand what’s around them.”
Josh O’Leary also reports for the Iowa City (Iowa) Press-Citizen; Marco Santana also reports for The Des Moines Register.
Google is rolling out a fleet of compact electrically-powered driverless cars. Shannon Rae Green shares Google’s plans for the vehicles, completely controlled by sensors and software. Would you trust it?
(USA TODAY, USA NOW)