Iowa City Press-Citizen: Harkin calls for more national funding of research

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Research and development are at the core of U.S. financial recovery, which can be achieved through Congressional commitment to longer-term investments in technology and infrastructure, U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin said this week.

"That really is the well spring of our economic strength in this country," Harkin said.

The Democratic senator, who is retiring at the end of this year when his term in office expires, appeared Tuesday at the National Advanced Driving Simulator at the University of Iowa's Oakdale Research Campus in Coralville.

The roughly $30 million simulator, which was built entirely without state funding, primarily has been used in collaboration with government, military and industry partners. The massive machine, which usually houses a modified sedan used for testing, has been used to study things such as the effects of drugs and alcohol on driving and the capabilities of new brake technology.

Research director Susan Chrysler said the simulator's most important auto industry contribution probably is the requirement mandated by federal lawmakers for electronic stability control — a requirement for commercial vehicles made after 2012 aimed at preventing cars from "fishtailing." Chrysler said the machine and smaller scale, "mini" computer driving simulators currently are being used by more than 40 partner organizations — primarily other universities — to study auditory warnings that inform drivers of pending collisions.

Omar Ahmad, director of operations at NADS, said the simulator is one of only two full-scale driving simulators in the world. The other is owned by Toyota and is housed in Japan.

"But this is the only simulator that's available for use by researchers," he said.

Although grand in scale, Ahmad said the authenticity of the visual driving experience in its simulators uses some of the same technology found in Xbox 360 or Playstation 3 video game consoles.

"That's basically what we've done," Ahmad said. "Taking all of those PCs and graphics cards and bundled them all together."

Harkin said innovation such as the projects under NADS are difficult to replicate in part because of policy issues, such as the national transportation bill most recently approved by Congress.

Harkin said transportation bills typically are written to last for five years, unlike the transportation bill recently approved, which is set to expire in May.

"This is ridiculous," Harkin said. "In five years, you can begin research projects that are longer lasting, but you can't when you do it for five or six or seven months. You just can't. So we've got to get back to longer-term transportation bills."