IOWA CITY — Inside a giant pod that looks something like a UFO, University of Iowa researchers spend their days testing new vehicle and road safety technologies that they believe will lead to better traffic flow and fewer crashes in the coming years.
The pod is a driving simulator, and it is large enough to fit the various vehicles the university uses for testing. It moves in all directions to simulate external forces on a vehicle, and on the inside, it displays a 360-degree simulated view.
The pod is housed in a basketball gymnasium-sized room at the University of Iowa’s National Advanced Driving Simulator.
Daniel McGehee, the simulator’s director and an associate professor at the University of Iowa, said it is the largest of its kind in the world and is one of only 10 sites in the nation that has a U.S. Department of Transportation-certified automated vehicle proving ground.
“We can mimic all the different forces of driving: swerving, hard brakes, losing control,” McGehee said. "We can do all that, and it moves around the entire room."
McGehee and other state transportation experts say new technologies are making cars smarter and safer, meaning high-volume roads such as Interstate 80 will be able to handle even more traffic, and at the same time, crashes should recede.
Such safety improvements come at an opportune time in Iowa. Road deaths in the state jumped 26 percent to 404 in 2016, the state’s deadliest year since 2008, according to state Department of Transportation data.
Officials at the state DOT are partnering with experts at the University of Iowa and Iowa State University to develop and test the new vehicle and road-safety technologies. Those advances over the next 20 years could help cut the number of road deaths in half even while increasing traffic, according to simulated data in a DOT study.
Experts said it will take that long before the current cutting-edge vehicle safety technology is standard on most vehicles. Once such technology is the rule, rather than the exception, highways such as I-80 will be able to accommodate as much as a 26 percent increase in traffic per lane, and crashes could fall between 50 percent and 70 percent, according to the DOT’s simulated data.
“Think about that in terms of how many lives would be saved if we had pretty significant market penetration,” said Brad Hofer, transportation engineering administrator with the Iowa DOT. “That’s not a small thing.”
How can a road system handle a significant increase in traffic while simultaneously reducing crashes? Advances in vehicle safety technology that are designed in particular to prevent drivers from drifting outside their lane is one way.
And Iowa, with a partnership between its DOT and researchers at its two largest public universities, is on the forefront of that research, officials here said.
“We concentrate on the driver and the driver performance in the context of how to make that better,” McGehee said. “We look at crash causation and how to intervene to prevent that crash in the first place or lessen its severity if it does happen. ...
“We’re very happy to be on the forefront of a lot of research in the area to help prevent those crashes and make those things better.”
McGehee, who has studied car crashes for two decades, said he likes to tell students the first vehicle safety automation appeared in the 1958 Chrysler Imperial. That car, McGehee said, was the first to feature cruise control.
“We don’t think of that as automation, but it really automates the function of keeping your car at speed,” McGehee said.
Now, nearly 60 years later, adaptive cruise control is one example of new technology that aims to make vehicles and driving safer. Cars built with the technology will automatically slow down — without the driver’s help — when the vehicle gets too close to another in front of it.
It is one of the technologies that experts think will help significantly improve traffic flow and reduce crashes.
“It will allow (the car) to follow a little closer, see a little further ahead, maintain speeds and flow a little better,” Hofer said. “We should see some significant gains in capacity and certainly see some significant gains in terms of safety.”
Stay in your lane
More vehicles also are being built with lane integrity systems, designed to warn drivers when they begin to swerve outside their lane. Most lane departure systems feature a warning signal that tells a driver he or she is drifting outside the lane. Such movement typically occurs when a driver becomes drowsy or is distracted by, for example, using his or her mobile phone.
Lane departures lead to what McGehee said is statistically the most common cause of vehicle crash deaths.
“The most common fatal crash is called the single vehicle roadway departure, where you drift off the lane, drop a wheel, over-correct, wind up in the ditch or in the oncoming lane or hit a tree. That’s how we die in North America,” McGehee said. “As more (car) companies get into lane-keeping systems, if you’re looking away or you’re sleepy, the car sort of acts like bowling bumper lanes.”
McGehee said the most common car crash is the rear-end collision, although those are rarely fatal and often cause no injuries at all. But they can snarl traffic, and adaptive cruise control should help reduce those kinds of crashes, which would help traffic flow.
“A little 5-miles-per-hour crash can cause an enormous delay in a system,” McGehee said. “It’s exciting to see the kind of technology that is going to start to prevent a lot of those kinds of crashes.”
But such technologies remain a few years away from being standard on new vehicles, and even then, it takes even longer for equipped vehicles to become the vast majority on the roads.
Still, they already are having an effect.
According to The Associated Press, a pair of recent institute studies found that vehicles with lane-keeping systems, some of which even nudge the vehicle back into its lane for the driver, and blind-spot monitoring systems had lower crash rates than the same vehicles without the systems.
The lane-keeping study looked at police crash data from 25 states between 2009 and 2015 for vehicle models in which the systems were sold as optional equipment, The Associated Press reported. Lane-keeping systems lowered rates of single-vehicle, sideswipe and head-on crashes of all severities by 11 percent and crashes of those types in which there were injuries by 21 percent, the study found.
The Iowa DOT also is researching high-definition road mapping, which could be fed to vehicles to improve lane integrity and warn drivers and smart cars about upcoming traffic issues such as accidents, construction or even adverse weather.
“We’re really wanting to create seamless data that flows between autonomous vehicles and our traffic management center using cloud (internet) services,” said Scott Marler, with the Iowa DOT. “If you have this type of technology in your vehicle, it would inform your vehicle to be making the types of maneuvers that it needs to move safely through the work zone. ... Your vehicle would know that miles in advance and could begin making preparations for that kind of maneuver.”
At the simulator in Iowa City, one test vehicle is adorned with the logo “To detect and to swerve” and has what McGehee says was the first vanity plate on a state-owned vehicle. It reads, “AU2M8,” for “automate.”
McGehee and the DOT officials said their partnership is unique across the country and has been fruitful.
“The state of Iowa is forward looking in many different areas,” McGehee said, “and transportation is one of those.”