Iowa City Press-Citizen: Officials Hope to Entice Driverless Vehicle Makers

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The day could come when a worker arrives in downtown Iowa City in her self-driving car, hops out at her office, then watches it drive off to park itself in a nearby ramp.

And with high-end vehicles already on the market featuring lane-departure correcting technology, automatic braking and parking assistance, that day might not be as far off as some might imagine.

Local economic development leaders and University of Iowa researchers are rolling out the welcome mat for the tech companies and automakers at the forefront of that driverless-car race with the hopes of attracting engineering teams and testing efforts to the Iowa City area.

They say the presence of a major research university, which houses the National Advanced Driving Simulator, along with Iowa's open spaces and a cluster of local companies with an interest in such technology, makes Johnson County the ideal testing grounds for computer-driven cars.

"We're trying to raise awareness that Iowa is open for business, and that specifically in our area around Iowa City, we have a lot of technical know-how," said Mark Nolte, president of the Iowa City Area Development Group.

Nolte was in San Francisco last week for the Autonomous Vehicles Symposium, courting companies like Google that he says are in need of roadways to hone their emerging vehicle technology.

"The feedback we've gotten from Google and other companies is that they need the mileage, they need the road time to perfect these systems, so the first state that lets them come in and gives them the road time is where they'll go," Nolte said.

Among the area's chief selling points is the presence of the National Advanced Driving Simulator at the UI Research Park in Coralville. Daniel McGehee, director of the human factors and vehicle safety research division at UI's Public Policy Center, said the driving simulator has been conducting automated vehicle research for nearly 20 years.

In the early 1990s, for instance, 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 the positions of other vehicles to avoid crashes.

UI's driving simulator also has a long-time relationship with Swedish researchers and Volvo, which is currently working on a self-driving car project called "Drive Me," McGehee said.

McGehee said that Iowa, which does not have any laws prohibiting the testing or operation of self-driving vehicles, also would present fewer bureaucratic hurdles than other states.

"One of the big advantages we have as a state is the degree of separation between the DOT and the universities — Iowa State and Iowa — and our companies, especially here in the corridor," McGehee said. "We can make decisions fairly rapidly; other states have a much larger bureaucracy. So that's a really big advantage for us as a state to be able to put together university and industry partnerships."

Nolte this summer has been working with the cities of Iowa City, Coralville and North Liberty, as well as Johnson County, to draft proclamations that will go before the respective city councils and Board of Supervisors stating local governments would be welcoming of automated car testing on their roads.

"We're hoping that those entities passing that proclamation will be a really tangible sign that we do welcome the technology and want to be a part of this movement," Nolte said.

McGehee said they also are looking at certifying infrastructure to ensure local roads could accommodate the vehicles. Essentially, said McGehee, 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, which is really nice," McGehee said. "Self-driving cars rely on their own sensors — scanning lasers, radar and cameras — to understand what's around them."

Nolte hopes that by embracing the technology early, the Iowa City area and its industry would benefit as it develops.

"It's coming, and it's coming soon," Nolte said. "We have the choice of either being part of that transition, and seeing the safety and economic gains on the front end, not to mention the environmental aspects and the reduced traffic. It will reduce carbon emissions, reduce congestion — there are so many benefits. We're just trying to position ourselves as being on the front end."

Reach Josh O'Leary at 887-5415 or joleary@press-citizen.com.