Creating an Automated Shuttle for America’s Backroads
Jan. 26, 2021—This summer, a partially-autonomous shuttle is set to hit the rural roads of Iowa to better inform automakers of the unique challenges that come from desolate landscapes.
The shuttle’s deployment is the next phase for the University of Iowa’s Automated Driving Systems for Rural America project.
Omar Ahmad, deputy director of the University of Iowa’s National Advanced Driving Simulator, and head of the ADS project said, “We are here to provide an independent perspective on [automated vehicles] and what it takes for them to operate on rural roadways and aid populations that are underserved.”
If all goes according to plan, Ahmad said the project will eventually help those who are mobility-impaired by providing transportation solutions in rural areas lacking public transit systems.
Nuts and Bolts
Ahmad said construction of the shuttle began last fall, but he and his staff have only ever had one week to spend with the vehicle.
First, the chassis of the shuttle was assembled at a Ford plant in Claycomo, Mo. From there, he said they sent the vehicle onto Goshen, Ind., where it was made ADA compliant, including the addition of a wheelchair lift.
“Then we had [the vehicle] for a week, and during that time we took footage and photographs,” he said.
Currently, the shuttle can be found in Morton, Ill., where it is being outfitted with camera, radar, and lidar sensors. Ahmad said the vehicle is being instrumented by AutonomouStuff, a software and engineering services company.
Ahmad said while the vehicle’s instrumentation is underway, the project’s partners at Mandli Communications will be creating high-definition maps of the shuttle’s 47-mile route.
Ahmad said they are expecting to have the vehicle back in May of this year, when it will undergo additional screening.
“We need time with the vehicle to get up to speed and we are going to be installing additional displays inside the vehicle for passengers,” he said.
The additional screens inside the vehicle will cater to passengers by showing them their estimated arrival time, current weather conditions, and possibly even more.
“If you were a passenger, what kind of information would make you feel better or have more trust in the vehicle?” he posed.
Consequences of COVID-19
Ahmad said when the pandemic first emerged last year, he thought they may have to put the project on hold.
“We’re not full speed ahead, but we’re making really good progress,” he said.
Choosing to continue the project has resulted in a few changes, Ahmad said, such as putting in place cleaning protocols for the vehicle and its riders. He said they are also testing the best way to maximize airflow in the cabin and outfitting the ‘drivers’ in full PPE.
The pandemic has not only affected the pace of the project, but Ahmad said it stands to affect its participants as well.
The initial plan was to recruit individuals from the community who are 65 years or older along with those who suffer from mobility challenges such as physical or visual impairments, he said. But those individuals are also in the demographic being most affected by the pandemic, he said, making it a complex situation.
“We are prepared for the possibility to not have any passengers for 2021,” Ahmad said. “But we really want to get the human element of what it’s like to be a passenger.”