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Driving Under the Influence—For Research

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Aug. 13, 2020—When you think of autonomous vehicles, what generally comes to mind is something out of a science fiction novel, or maybe one of Marty McFly’s well-intentioned adventures. You may even go so far as to ponder the intricacies of the technology that makes autonomous vehicles, well, autonomous. What gets little recognition are the hoops needed to jump through to get these vehicles safe for the road. One such hoop is the size of a basketball stadium and located at the University of Iowa.

Daniel McGehee the director of the National Advanced Driving Simulator, says it is the largest of its kind in the world. The star of the operation is an $80 million simulation unit. The simulator is used to replicate real-world driving experiences to test how driver’s respond to unexpected events in their automated vehicles. The dome-shaped unit sits on six legs and is attached to four additional suspensions used to emulate driving in a real, yet safe way. 

“Highly automated vehicles are operating in the perfect world right now, we want to make them operate in the imperfect world,” McGehee says of the center’s mission. 

The research center started with a $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation and has since gotten its funding through competitive grants. Any profit that the center turns over is put directly back into the research, says McGehee.

The simulator itself had to be custom-built by a variety of vendors who could only build it on-site due to its sheer size. 

“The simulator allows us to do automated driving in the most challenging of environments,” says McGehee. NADS has done autonomous research spanning from drunk driving to drivers with Parkinson’s disease. 

Being located in Iowa gives the simulator and its researchers a unique perspective on issues drivers may encounter while on the road. Obstacles such as tractors and combines may not be a priority for testing facilities in California, but in Iowa they are an everyday occurrence.


Tackling the Unknown

The primary objective of the simulator is not to educate the researchers about the car’s capabilities, but rather to understand driver performance.

NADS tracks concentration levels including how often the driver looks away from the road, how long they are looking away from the road, and even the rate at which their eyelids start to droop, indicating sleep is not far away. 

 “What does it look like when you have a driver take control of the vehicle while reading the newspaper?” poses McGehee. 

Most autonomous vehicles rely on the paint on the road to enact their ADAS systems such as lane change assistance. What if that marker isn’t available?

“There are places in Iowa where we don’t even have paint on the road,” says McGehee. “Then you think about how many months we have snow and other elements covering the road markings, what is your vehicle supposed to do?”

As society evolves, so does the simulator. Currently, they are working on drivers who are under the influence of cannabis. “States are increasingly allowing recreational cannabis, so we are testing varying levels of THC concentrate to see how it affects drivers,” he says. So far, the research has shown that even 30 percent THC can make the drug highly impairing for drivers. 


The Research Team

The research center employs 25 full-time staffers and an additional 15 students and faculty members. The students who work at NADS range in studies from pharmacy to psychology to law.

“We are probably the most interdisciplinary and diverse research center,” he says. 

Christopher-Rasheem Mcmillan is an associate professor at the University of Iowa with a joint appointment between Dance and Gender, Women’s and Sexuality Studies. 

“When I met [Mcmillan], he said dance was all about timing and performance in order to avoid crashes,” says McGehee. “We commissioned him to do a ‘crash dance’ for us so we could rethink what it meant to be in a crash.” 

The art of dance is a lot like driving in the sense that you always have to be aware of your surroundings. The researchers took cues from the dancer’s position and timing to inform the development of their crash avoidance systems. 




 “Many technologies that you see on the road today came from the University of Iowa’s research,” says McGehee. The simulator has been in use for more than 20 years and has aided in autonomous driving research across all spectrums.


Images: the University of Iowa

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