Delaware works to be on cutting edge of self-driving cars; shuttles at UD are next



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DelDOT’s Transportation Management Center, the epicenter of all things traffic control in Delaware has begun looking to the future automated vehicles.

Imagine getting into a vehicle, setting a course for work and then sitting back and letting the car do the driving.

While autonomous vehicles may be a decade or so away in Delaware, officials want to be ready when the technology arrives.

Dr. Phillip Barnes, an associate policy scientist at the Institute for Public Administration at the University of Delaware, said the Institute was approached two years ago by the Delaware Department of Transportation to look into connected and autonomous vehicles.

“They were obviously aware that this was going to transform the nature of transportation and they wanted to know what they were getting in to,” Barnes said. “We tried to gaze into a crystal ball to try to anticipate what the future might hold.”

What Barnes and others on the project found was straight out of a science fiction movie.

An IPA report published last year looked at the levels of automation, safety, congestion, and impacts the technology might have on the transportation system, jobs and the economy.

Barnes points out in the report that Level 1 automation is already available and offers assistance to drivers under certain road conditions.

For instance, adapted cruise control regulates a vehicle’s speed in response to changes in the traffic environment. Electronic stability control applies brakes if the vehicle is taking a turn too fast to help prevent rollovers. And emergency dynamic brake support exerts more pressure to the brake if the driver is not braking hard enough in an emergency situation.

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There also is traffic assist technology, which adjusts vehicle direction and speed for lane centering while maintaining constant distances between vehicles ahead and behind.

Vehicles that combine adapted cruise control with lane centering to control all steering, braking, and throttle in high-speed situations also satisfy Level 2 criteria.

The report indicates that the General Motors SuperCruise system available on certain 2018 Cadillac models is the latest technological advancement. Those vehicles are capable of driving on highways without the driver holding the steering wheel or putting their foot on the pedal.   

The next level of automation is more reminiscent of sci-fi movies.

Fully automated or self-driving vehicles are defined by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration as “those in which operation of the vehicle occurs without direct driver input to control the steering, acceleration and braking and are designed so that the driver is not expected to constantly monitor the roadway while operating in self-driving mode.” 

Barnes believes we can’t just flip the switch from current modes of transportation to fully automated vehicles. The IPA report agreed, describing an incremental transition.

During that period, Barnes believes there will be a combination of automated vehicles co-existing with manually driven vehicles.

“We’re not going right to [science fiction movies] ‘Minority Report’ vehicles or right to ‘WALL-E,’ but this is the future of transportation,” Barnes said. “I don’t know if it is going to be quite as revolutionary as some people who are comparing it to the transition from horse and buggy to actual motor vehicles, but it will change the way we do things.”

Preparing for the future

Six months after the report was released, Gov. John Carney established an advisory council on connected and autonomous vehicles through an executive order.

Carney and other state officials believe that the economic impact of autonomous technology could mean a better quality of life for Delawareans and spur economic development.

“We’re trying to keep our eye on the prize of expanded mobility for our seniors and people with disabilities,” said Delaware Department of Transportation Secretary Jennifer Cohan, who was appointed in January 2015. “If you look at the mobility options something like a connected and autonomous vehicle provides, it’s fantastic, and it’s definitely where we want to go in the future.”

Barnes said the technology can deliver beneficial outcomes for a lot of Delawareans.

“This technology could be very helpful for those people currently unable to drive,” he said. “If they have a handicap or if they are elderly or mobility challenged, this technology has the capability of helping them get around.”

Cohan said the state also wants to attract high-tech companies in the field.

“States are doing all sorts of things to prepare for this,” she said. “One of the things we’ve heard loud and clear from the manufacturers is they don’t need any more test pilot locations. Manufacturers are ready to deploy and we would like for them to deploy here.”

Cohan said because DelDOT manages about 90 of roadway infrastructure, it has an advantage to quickly adapt to the technology.

For several decades, DelDOT has been building communications capabilities such as high-speed fiber-optic broadband and hardware into the state transportation infrastructure and is already capable of managing traffic in real-time.

There are 300 miles of fiber optic cable in the state, with another 300 miles planned. 

Gene Donaldson, operations manager for the state’s Transportation Management Center, believes Delaware has been building the system needed to transition into the “next phase” of transportation for 20 years.

“What we have is an excellent foundation for connected and autonomous vehicles,” he said. “We have a system in place that brings all modes together and implements the technology.”

Donaldson is referring to the monitors, detectors, traffic signals and cameras that provide real-time information, all run out of the Transportation Management Center in Smyrna.

“To me and others, it’s the next phase of transportation and we need to be ready for it,” he said. “We need to be prepared and we need to understand it.”

When in place, Donaldson believes the “next phase” will bring dramatic improvements to safety. He said that over 94 percent of accidents are driver error-related. In a country that sees over 37,000 traffic fatalities each year, he believes automation will be a game-changer.

“Safety can definitely be improved through this technology,” Donaldson said. 

Donaldson and his colleagues are testing the technology at a traffic signal on U.S. 13 near the Traffic Management Center.

He said the agency has about 10 more traffic signals of the 1,000 or so statewide that need to be converted before all are on the computerized system.

What’s next?

Scientists at two laboratories at the University of Delaware hope to shed more light on the technology.

There, vehicles of the future are being put to the test.  

According to an article published on the UDaily website, Andreas Malikopoulos, who joined the University of Delaware’s Department of Mechanical Engineering in 2017, is researching ways to maximize fuel efficiency in automated vehicles.

According to UDaily, Malikopoulos is the principal investigator of a $4.2 million, three-year project to improve the efficiency of an Audi A3 e-tron by at least 20 percent. Researchers at the University of Michigan, Boston University, Bosch Corporation and Oak Ridge National Laboratory are partnering.

DelDOT will purchase two autonomous shuttles to deploy on the Newark campus in the near future. 

According to Cohan, UD will operate and maintain the autonomous shuttles, as well as do the research that will be provided back to DelDOT.

“UD has been researching this in sort of a microcosm way and they have the research arm and the data-crunching resources that we are going to need,” she said. “We’ll need to know how the shuttles not only run on the roads but also how they interact with pedestrians and with each other.”

Public perception is not a small hurdle.

Ken Grant, public relations manager for AAA Mid-Atlantic region was recently at a trade show where this was a topic. He said last year, 78 percent of people said they would be afraid to ride in a fully self-driving vehicle. A year later, only 63 percent said they would be afraid.

“Public perception is changing, and the more we get the word out about the future of transportation, that will continue to move in a positive direction,” Grant said.

Reach Jerry Smith at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @JerrySmithTNJ.

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