University of Iowa Conducts Research on Vehicle Automation

University of Iowa researcher Dan McGehee stopped his black Volvo SUV alongside a gap in the row of parked cars near the Johnson County Courthouse, tapped the display panel and sat back.

The vehicle’s computer scanned its surroundings and pinged, letting McGehee know it had locked in on the empty parking spot. McGehee, hands on his lap, watched the iPad-like dash display as the steering wheel spun itself and maneuvered the SUV into position to parallel park. The screen showed a bird’s-eye view of the Volvo – stitching together images from its nearly two dozen exterior cameras and top-mounted radar – while the vehicle eased backward into the parking spot.

Seconds later, another ping sounded and the car was at rest: a perfect parallel-parking job that would have earned approval from any driver’s-education instructor.

“This is really kind of a window into the future of self-parking cars,” said McGehee, noting that one day, vehicles like this could drop their driver off at the office before rolling away to a parking space on their own.

For more than 20 years, McGehee, director of the Human Factors and Vehicle Safety Research Division at the university’s Public Policy Center, and his fellow researchers have been studying vehicle safety and the role automation can play in preventing crashes. Today, as vehicles inch closer to a fully-automated future, university experts are riding the front bumper in the field in research, educational efforts and policy study.

“Many of the technologies on this vehicle were first studied right over there,” said McGehee, gesturing in the direction where the Iowa Driving Simulator was once housed on campus. That program has evolved into the renowned National Advanced Driving Simulator, which today is situated on the Oakdale campus and is where UI’s cutting-edge vehicle research takes place.

“That’s what’s the exciting part about the basic research that’s been done here in Iowa – now we’re seeing advanced research in production, essentially,” said McGehee, director of the human factors and vehicle safety research division at the University of Iowa’s Public Policy Center.

The Iowa City Press-Citizen reports that McGehee took the Press-Citizen on a drive around the city last month in UI’s semi-automated research vehicle: a Volvo XC90 bearing the license plate “AU2M8.”

The SUV, which won’t be sold commercially until next year and is among the first of its kind in North America, has a long list of semi-automated capabilities that the school’s Public Policy Center is highlighting in a nationwide education campaign called “My Car Does What?” The effort launched this fall in partnership with the National Safety Council.

The University of Iowa, which has worked with Volvo and Swedish transportation leaders over the years on other initiatives, purchased the vehicle for $68,000 earlier this year. The institution received $17.2 million in grants in 2014 that were part of a class-action settlement involving Toyota. That settlement sent about $30 million to various research institutions, with the school receiving the lion’s share of the grants, to fund automotive safety research and the development and implementation of a national education campaign.

After demonstrating the self-parking feature on the recent outing in the research vehicle, McGehee navigated his way through town in the SUV, flipping on the automation once again to show off its assisted braking system. As the vehicle approached a line of stopped cars at a traffic signal, McGehee kept his foot off the brake, but the XC90’s ever-scanning sensors detected the car ahead and brought the vehicle to smooth stop.

McGehee said the XC90 doesn’t just scan the road for other vehicles; it also detects bicyclists and pedestrians.

“If you drive across a crosswalk and a person is there, it will slam on the brakes,” he said, as the light turned green and the vehicle accelerated on its own. The XC90, he explained, was also monitoring the stoplights and speed limit signs. Here, the vehicle wouldn’t go faster than posted 35 mph limit with its automated system on.

“One of the issues in the future is how municipalities and states fine for speeds; in the future cars essentially won’t go past their speed limit,” said McGehee, meaning that a day may come when speeding tickets will no longer be a revenue generator for cities.

Later, out on the highway, McGehee let the vehicle drift nearly out of his lane before the computer, scanning the road markings, kicked in and corrected the trajectory. Back on course, the vehicle adjusted its speed with its adaptive cruise control to ensure it was a distance from the car ahead.

The most common fatal crash scenario in the U.S. is single-vehicle roadway departure, said McGehee, often occurring when a drowsy, distracted or impaired driver drifts off the road and wrecks the vehicle. Likewise, in cities, rear-end collisions are a common road hazard, but computer-assisted braking could potentially make them a thing of the past.

“We want to prevent the crash altogether, or reduce its severity,” McGehee said. “These are not meant to be fully automated vehicles, but are designed to step in when drivers drift out of their lane if they’re distracted or sleepy. If a car ahead brakes and you don’t notice, it puts on the brakes for you.”

While fully automated cars, like those currently being developed by Google and a number of car manufacturers, are making headlines these days, McGehee said they are a couple vehicle generations away from becoming a commercial reality. In the meantime, vehicles like the XC90 packed with driver-assistance features will become the norm, he said.

Although the university’s Volvo is cutting-edge, it’s certainly not the only semi-automated vehicle on the road. Plenty of newer vehicles, even those in lower-end price ranges, are equipped with features like lane-warning systems and automatic emergency braking, McGehee said.

“I think the technology on this vehicle in the next five years will be standard on almost all cars,” he said. “I think people are amazed that this technology is essentially for sale now.”

And that’s where the university’s “My Car Does What?” campaign comes in – teaching drivers what safety features are available on vehicles, and what their own car may already be equipped with.

As part of the initiative, the school conducted a study of more than 2,000 adult drivers across the U.S. and found that there is a generally low level of awareness of how features such as adaptive cruise control and forward collision warning systems work. Even more, there is also a general uncertainty about technologies that have been standard on vehicles for years or even decades, such as tire-pressure monitoring systems and anti-lock brakes, the study found.

Ashley McDonald, a project manager for the school’s Transportation and Vehicle Safety Research Program, leads the new education initiative and coordinated the driver survey. She said as more and more vehicles roll out with advanced safety features, it’s important that drivers know how to make use of them.

“We’re taking the angle of educating consumers on the basic concepts,” McDonald said. “We’re starting to see significant market penetration of one or two of the technologies, like blind-spot alert and back-up cameras. And the Volvo gives us a chance to demonstrate and test these technologies.”

In addition to the education efforts, the university is putting that $17.2 million in grant money to work in a number of other driving research fronts, including an engineering analysis to determine if multiple car sensor systems can be used together to prevent certain types of crashes, and a national survey on public perceptions of vehicle safety technologies.

Advancements in automated driving also open the door to big policy questions that will emerge in the coming years. Even though the technology is moving at a rapid pace, policy-making is lagging considerably, McGehee said.

“The technology is actually pretty mature, but the policy-making is not. So how do you implement these kinds of vehicles, is really the main question,” said McGehee, who is currently working with the Iowa Department of Transportation on the legal and legislative issues that will arise.

“Some states like California have chosen to create new laws for everything around automated driving,” McGehee said. “The challenge is that those laws have to be specific, but the technology is changing every day. So California has been in sort of a log jam because they put so many laws in early on, and they have so many companies doing the work, they can’t change the technology when they find something better.”

After making a loop of the city, McGehee pulled back in front of the Engineering Building and parked the SUV. This time, the old-fashioned way.