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Tackling the Rural Hurdle

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Sept. 24, 2020—When you think of your commute to work, what probably comes to mind is the one stoplight that takes too long, construction zones to avoid, or maybe your secret shortcut that has a speed limit of 55 miles per hour versus the typical 40—unless you live in Iowa.

Iowans, South Dakotans, Nebraskans, and other rural-dwellers have to be mindful of combines, tractors, and even horse buggies when on the road. Not only do the drivers need to be aware of the change in landscape, but so do their cars. 

A recent ADAPT article detailed the need for autonomous vehicle technology that caters to residence in rural areas as opposed to urban ones. The differences between rural and urban driving span road conditions, types of motorists, and more. 

The University of Iowa’s National Advanced Driving Simulator conducts a multitude of research projects focused on autonomous driving systems. One of their ongoing projects, Automated Driving Systems for Rural America, is gearing up for the next phase of their project—deploying an autonomous bus with civilian passengers. 

The Demonstration

The demonstration will feature a small, shuttle-like autonomous bus that travels a 47 mile loop, says Omar Ahmad, deputy director of the NADS. 

“The loop starts in Iowa City and has four stops chosen to represent common places people want to visit,” he says. Along the route there is a stop at a marketplace, public library, community center, and a casino. 

The demonstration will include 80 complete drives of the route over the course of two years. Ahmad says the demonstration is intentionally drawn out in order to collect data across each season for drivers in Iowa and across the nation. 

When all is said and done, there will be more than 210 terabytes worth of government-funded, publicly-available data, he says.

The Participants 

The shuttle-like bus has seats for up to eight people, but Ahmad says only three of which will be occupied by researchers from the department. The remaining seats will be reserved for civilians, Ahmad says, and specifically those who are older and mobility-impaired. 

“When you look at serving the needs of our populations, older people stand to benefit the greatest from AVs,” he says. “In a rural setting there are no public transportation systems, being able to drive is equivalent to freedom and independence.” 

Not only will the researchers collect oral feedback from the participants, but they will also collect physiological data through a wearable cuff worn by the passengers. 

“We don’t want it to be like a research lab on wheels,” Ahmad explains. “Our background is behavior, not medicine.” 


The Results

The first demonstration will not take place until next summer. Ahmad says the program has suffered minor delays due to the ongoing pandemic, but he says there are still silver linings to be found. 

Wearable technology has made recent advancements that have lended well to their project, he explains. The original plan did not include the use of a wearable cuff to provide physiological data, but Ahmad says the delays have allowed them time to make adjustments where possible.  

The biggest goal of the demonstration is to produce a data set that can be used by everyone to better inform the functionality and execution of autonomous vehicles, says Ahmad. 

At the research center, he says they are all motivated by need.

“The point of our project is to show what can be done on rural roadways, where the challenges are, and what there is to overcome if we are going to have AVs operate on all roadways,” he states.


Image: ADS for Rural America

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