Johnson County in eastern Iowa is trying to pull out into the fast lane and get ahead of the rest of the country when it comes to being the home for developing driverless cars. The Johnson County Supervisors unanimously passed a proclamation Thursday encouraging the testing of the vehicles — the first county in the nation to do so.
Iowa City Area Development (ICAD) Group president Mark Nolte, says the proclamation comes on the heels of a visit by a delegation to the “Automated Vehicle Symposium” in San Francisco last week. “We had some great discussions with some the companies that are looking to implement this technology, and so this proclamation and the ones that will follow from the city of Iowa City, Coralville and North Liberty, help really show that we are serious about wanting to encourage them to come and use our roadways to get the mileage necessary for the public to adopt this new technology,” Nolte says.
It seems like something from a Jetsons’ cartoon, but Nolte says driverless cars are no longer that futuristic. “Driverless vehicles will be the next big technology that profoundly affects all of our lives — kind of like the smart phones have over the last few years,” Nolte says. “And so we’re trying to position Iowa to be the leader in this emerging technology.”
Nolte says there are sveveral selling points Iowa can offer to automakers. “We’ve got a lot of engineering research at the University of Iowa and Iowa State. The University of Iowa is home to the National Advanced Driving Simulator which is very critical as an asset for our state as we look to encourage these companies,” Nolte explains. “If you look at what’s been done in the automotive sector, what’s coming for the trucking sector. We just see that there’s as a natural fit for Iowa in this coming industry.”
He says companies like GM, Mercedes, Volvo and Google were all at the event in San Francisco, and he says they aren’t the only ones looking at the technology. “Every automaker is looking at these systems right now. I think the question is: Who is going to be first to market? And is the public ready for it? And the only way to find that out is to put these on the road and let people experience them,” Nolte says.
Nolte says getting the public used to the idea of the driverless car is a big issue. But he says there are already some systems being used and the studies have shown they increase the safety of vehicles. “We as humans overestimate our competency for safety behind the wheel,” according to Nolte. “When you compare us to these systems — we are going to have 360 degree vision, they’ll never get tired, they’ll never get distracted, they’ll be able to communicate with other vehicles with the infrastructure — they are vastly superior from a safety standpoint than humans ever will be.”
Ann Arbor, Michigan has a system for driverless cars that’s in a simulated environment that Nolte says is not as favorable to the automakers as having the vehicles run on regular roads. He says the Johnson County group might work with them on the research. Nolte says there are a few other competitors out there. “So far, three states have limited testing laws, Nevada, Michigan, California. California is having some issues rolling out the rules around this,” Nolte says. “So the feedback we’ve gotten from some of the legislative and public policy folks for the auto industry is, the first state that lets us come in and truly just adopts us and lets us log mileage on the roads will be the state we move to first.”
He says Iowa is ready to make that happen. “Current state law does not have any restrictions against this. And so, we’ve had some great conversations with the Iowa Department of Transportation and the State Patrol and the safety folks and the Iowa Economic Development Authority and the governor’s office. There’s nothing legislatively that we need to change to allow this to happen right now,” Nolte says.
He says the I-CAD Group will continue to set meetings with companies and organizations from the Automated Vehicle Symposium and they are working on establishing dates with local city councils for future proclamations to welcome driverless vehicles.