From Simulation to Automation
Sept. 14, 2020—Technology is heaven, hell and everything in between. With all of the benefits that come from our technologically advanced society, there are also dangers. The use of technology in our society is as efficient as it is unreliable. With internet access, anyone can learn about almost any topic at the drop of a hat, but if your WiFi goes out, you’re stuck. Similarly, autonomous vehicles are helpful in many ways, but if they start to malfunction you’re not just stuck—it could be a matter of life and death.
Autonomous vehicles are so new to the industry and therefore undergo a plethora of rigorous testing before they are allowed on public roads. For the state of Colorado, the Autonomous Mobility Task Force gives final approval before deployment.
Ashley Nylen, assistant director for mobility technology at Colorado Department of Transportation says she has always been fascinated by technology, the way it improves our quality of life, and its ability to propel society forward. It is this fascination that first led her to the University of Iowa’s National Advanced Driving Simulator where she studied under its director, Daniel McGehee.
At the University of Iowa, Nylen worked on the MyCarDoesWhat campaign to inform drivers about the underlying features of their vehicles. After that she worked with Iowa’s Department of Transportation in developing digital infrastructure. Her interest in technology has led her through various positions and sectors of the industry. Now, she is part of the team that dictates which driverless vehicles are allowed on Colorado roadways.
The Autonomous Mobility Task Force is a joint effort between Colorado’s State Patrol, Colorado Department of Revenue, and the Colorado Department of Transportation that oversees and approves the operation of driverless vehicles.
Nylen says the application process is very thorough. It covers safety protocols, routes, drivers licenses, design domain, and more. Once the application for deployment is filled out, it first goes to Colorado’s Department of Transportation. Once they have reviewed the materials, they share it with the members of the task force. The final step is a presentation. The company, or automaker, must give a presentation to the task force committee members as the final step to deployment. If the task force likes what they see, approval is granted.
Colorado’s task force is focused specifically on deployment of AVs, whereas other states may have other priorities, she says.
“A lot of other states have task forces or committees of different flavors,” Nylen says. “Some may be more focused on understanding policy impacts, societal impacts, or environmental impacts.”
The creation of the task force came down to a state Senate bill that was signed in 2017. Since then, they have been responsible for three deployments of autonomous vehicles. Nylen says the most recent deployment was approved in order to deliver food to those who had been affected by the sudden coronavirus pandemic.
Autonomous vehicles are still so new to the landscape that the task force only meets on an as-needed basis, she says. So far, they have approved each of the proposals that have come across their desks, but Nylen assures the application process is lengthy.
Autonomous vehicles as well as their regulations have taken leaps and bounds in recent years. Nylen hopes the task force will be able to provide a framework to safely allow these vehicles to operate alongside the general public. But with anything, she says there are obstacles.
“One inherent challenge in merging technology is the pace of technology and the pace of innovation,” she says. It is a delicate and often frustrating balance, but a worthy one.
“It’s really remarkable to see how quickly we’ve come,” she says of the advancement of autonomous vehicles in recent years.