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The Rural Hurdle

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Sept. 23, 2020—The constant evolution of technology is daring, daunting, and above all—exciting. In 2010, offices and hallways buzzed with the news of a newly-announced iPhone. In 2012 the Tesla Model S release quickly became the top subject for watercooler chats. The technology talk of today, however, sounds akin to the plot of a George Lucas film with terms like “driverless vehicles” and “automated braking assistance.” 

The future of autonomous technology appears to be limitless—unless you live in a limited area.

Omar Ahmad graduated from the University of Iowa with an undergraduate degree in 

computer science and is now the deputy director at the National Advanced Driving Simulator, located on the University’s campus. 

Ahmad heads one of NADS’ research programs titled, Automated Driving Systems (ADS) for Rural America, that aims to bring awareness to the unique challenges of driving autonomous vehicles on rural roads. 

 

Meeting Challenges

When it comes to autonomous vehicles, most people picture a car driving down an empty highway with a scenic lookout and the “driver” taking in the views while the car steers itself. But what happens when it is not a coastline highway, but a gravel road that the autonomous vehicle has to navigate? That is precisely what Ahmad and his team are hoping to answer.

“We want to highlight the challenges of implemented vehicles on our nation’s roadways, which we believe have been forgotten in the initial discussions,” he says. 

Iowa, like many other U.S. states, is known for its farming and agriculture. As a result, the roads across the state of Iowa look exponentially different than those in Florida or New York. 

Ahmad says school buses, tractors, and even horse buggies are not an uncommon occurrence on rural Iowan roadways, but the available technology in AVs is not equipped to deal with such instances. 

“A lot of people want to say AVs are here, but what we want to avoid are solely testing urban roadways because the solutions will be very urban-centric,” says Ahmad. 

Not only are there obstacles on the road to consider in rural areas, but the road itself can also be a wandering variable.

 

Changing Conditions

In February 2019, Des Moines, Iowa, received over one foot of snow, according to the National Weather Service. The year before that, the shortest month of the year saw the city blanketed by more than two feet of snowfall. 

Autonomous vehicles are able to operate via the use of sensors and cameras that are placed throughout the vehicle. These sensors are intentionally designed to pick up everything in its view, but in states like Iowa, that view can often be restricted due to weather conditions. 

“We want to avoid solely testing on urban roadways,” Ahmad says, “because the solutions will be very urban-centric.” 

The next phase in ADS’s research project is a 47 mile long demonstration in automated driving. Ahmad says the route will be driven 80 times in one year in order to gather data from the AV’s perspective as well as the passengers in hopes to better inform drivers and engineers everywhere. 

The first demonstration is projected to begin in the summer of 2021.

 

Image: ADS for Rural America

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