Iowa City area named a ‘proving ground’ for autonomous vehicle testing

Waymo's self-driving minivan (Photo via Waymo)

A years-long effort in eastern Iowa to attract more autonomous vehicle research has received a federal boost.

The U.S. Department of Transportation has named the Iowa City area, represented by the Iowa City Area Development Group, as one of 10 “automated vehicle proving grounds.”

The designation adds more “legitimacy” to the region when it comes to autonomous vehicle research, said Tom Banta, ICAD’s director of strategic growth.

“You’d love to see the Waymos … the GMs, the Fords, the Ubers. We’d love to attract those types of organizations to the area,” Banta said. “We’re not certain whether or not we’ll be successful in that endeavor. I think those are realistic targets for us now that we’ve at least been given this designation.”

While only 10 areas were selected, the U.S. DOT said it received more than 60 applications seeking proving ground designation.

Banta acknowledged that the Iowa City area will still have to compete to attract automotive companies and others researching the technology.

He said Iowa has an advantage, though, because it can offer a variety of environments for testing. Those include different types of roadways like highways and gravel roads, larger cities and university towns, and a variety of weather conditions.

National Advanced Driving Simulator Director Dan McGehee said the designation gives the government a way to “apply a filter” and mark areas that are suitable for autonomous vehicle testing.

“What the auto industry, computer companies and what the government has seen over the last couple of years is cities, counties and states raising their hands and jumping up and down boldly to say ‘hey, we’re open for business,’ not really fully recognizing the complexities of what it takes to do testing on their roads,” McGehee said.

Both Banta and McGehee said they had either recently contacted or been contacted by potential partner organizations.

The designation also joins ongoing efforts around Eastern Iowa to research autonomous vehicle technology.

For example, the National Advanced Driving Simulator at the University of Iowa is conducting its own safety research. It has also built a simulated city, called Springfield, to help test autonomous technology in a virtual setting.

Iowa’s Department of Transportation is also working with mapping company HERE to produce high-definition maps of Interstate 380 between Iowa City and Cedar Rapids. A later stage of the project may map roadways between Des Moines and Ames.

Anthony Foxx, the now former U.S. Transportation Secretary, said the 10 proving grounds will “collectively form a Community of Practice” to test and deploy automated vehicle technology.

“This group will openly share best practices for the safe conduct of testing and operations as they are developed, enabling the participants and the general public to learn at a faster rate and accelerating the pace of safe deployment,” Foxx said in a statement.

There is no funding tied to the designation.

The other nine designations were given to:

  • City of Pittsburgh and the Thomas D. Larson Pennsylvania Transportation Institute
  • Texas AV Proving Grounds Partnership
  • S. Army Aberdeen Test Center (Maryland)
  • American Center for Mobility at Willow Run (Michigan)
  • Contra Costa Transportation Authority & GoMentum Station (California)
  • San Diego Association of Governments
  • University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • Central Florida Automated Vehicle Partners
  • North Carolina Turnpike Authority

The DOT’s announcement came the night before President Donald Trump’s inauguration. McGehee said he is not concerned the transition will stop progress on the effort.

Matthew Patane is the managing editor and co-founder of Clay & Milk. Send him an email at mpatane@clayandmilk.com.