The Autonomous Cars of Johnson County

By Bill Moore

Madison County has its covered bridges. Dubuque County has its 'Field of Dreams.' Johnson County, Iowa wants its autonomous, self-driving trucks, cars, and commuter electric pods; and the county supervisors passed a resolution to that effect. Here's the back story.

Madison County might have its quaint covered bridges, but if the likes of Volvo, Daimler, Audi or Google take Johnson County, Iowa up on their offer, that autonomous Mercedes truck cruising down that autobahn test track in Germany could someday, in the not-too-distant future, find itself motoring along the roads in and around Iowa City, home of the University of Iowa.

With that vision in mind - and the economic development opportunities this up-and-coming technology represents to the county and the state - the five county supervisors of Johnson County unanimously approved the following resolution on July 24, 2014:


WHEREAS, the next technological transformation that will profoundly affect our lives will be the introduction of passenger and freight automobiles operating with autonomous functionality. These vehicles have the potential to one day eliminate traffic fatalities caused by human error and distraction. Furthermore, intelligent vehicles will reduce congestion, emissions and the need for costly additions of lanes to busy roadways; and

WHEREAS, the University of Iowa and its related research endeavors, most notably, The National Advanced Driving Simulator and the Public Policy Center, have been at the forefront of advancing innovations in vehicle-to-vehicle communications, sensor technology, human factors, artificial intelligence, and public policy issues critical to the success of this transformational change; and

WHEREAS, many companies in our region have been successfully pioneering similar vehicle systems in the agricultural, aerospace and related fields, and there exists a cluster of software and technology companies whose development can be encouraged by supportive communities; and

WHEREAS, it is our stated goal to engage in strategic economic development initiatives that will create high-paying employment opportunities to strengthen our overall economy and provide benefit to all citizens. We realize that those communities and states that are first to embrace this life-saving and transformational technological advancement will stand to gain the most potential economic benefit.

NOW, THEREFORE, be it resolved that we, the Johnson County Board of Supervisors, do hereby proclaim that Johnson County welcomes the testing and operation of intelligent vehicles on the streets and roads over which we have jurisdiction in accordance with applicable law, as a means to encourage the advancement of this technology and to create economic benefit, and will, if necessary, work collaboratively with other jurisdictions in Johnson County to address any issues that arise in order to best protect the safety of our citizens.

Signed this 24th day of July, 2014, in Johnson County, Iowa

One of the individuals responsible for making this happen is Mark Nolte, the president of the Iowa City Area Development (ICAD) Group. In this 26-minute-plus MP3 audio interview, EV World's Bill Moore talks with him about the events leading up to the vote and what he anticipates happening moving forward.

While much of the research into autonomous automobiles has initially taken place in California (Google) and Europe (Daimler, Nissan and Volvo) - the technology is not new to Iowa. Farm tractors have been plowing fields and sowing seeds using GPS and autonomous driving systems for a couple decade now, much of the software and hardware having been developed by Iowa-based companies. The University of Iowa, located in Iowa City, is a renown Top Ten research institution and home to the National Advanced Driving Simulator and the Public Policy Center. Just up Interstate 380 in Cedar Rapids is Rockwell Collins, a major aerospace and electronics firm. Locating an autonomous driving test center in the area would not stretch the community's technological and educational resources, by any means.

As Nolte points out, the area also offers what California doesn't: four seasons, allowing more real-world testing capabilities from dealing with icy highways to unmarked country roads.

Of course, who will be the first to move their technology off the safety of the test track and into the 'real-world' remains to be seen. In this video, which Nolte references in his remarks, Volvo says it plans to put 100 of its autonomous cars on the streets and roads of Gothenburg, home of its corporate headquarters in Sweden by 2015.

As to which type of vehicle will likely become the first to be deployed in a commercial sense, Nolte thinks it will be in the trucking industry. He thinks the established passenger carmakers will be reluctant for liability and business model reasons to bring out self-driving cars, which he sees ultimately changing the car ownership paradigm. If you can order up a self-driving 'pod' - and Google demonstrated earlier this Spring - that will take you where you want and you never have to park it or deal with the other expenses of car ownership, why bother owning a car in the first place?

What he also sees changing is how cars are propelled: electric cars and autonomous driving were made for each other.

The bottom line? Watch this space. Things are about to get very interesting in the world of personal mobility.

Times Article Viewed: 7037
Originally published: 04 Aug 2014


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