As scientists work to make driverless vehicles a reality, University of Wisconsin moves to prepare the state to become their testing ground.

Wisconsin was designated a testing ground for autonomous vehicles last month. UW collaborated with the Madison City Council, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation and various companies in the state to submit a proposal to the U.S. Department of Transportation in December last year for this designation.

There are only nine other states that received approval to test AVs.

Wisconsin’s AV testing grounds includes 400 acres of roadways and crash-testing facilities originally built as a testing ground for American Motors cars. Now Google, Tesla and other such auto-manufacturers use them. They are private and secure testing areas, Jon Riehl, transportation systems engineer at UW Traffic Operations and Safety Lab, said.

Wisconsin’s testing grounds also look to ensure optimum AV efficiency and safety. The transition period to such vehicles would be at least 10 years, Peter Rafferty, a transportation researcher in UW’s civil and environmental engineering department, said.

Researchers have focused on developing AVs and other driverless vehicles for a decade now, and they have studied the theoretical aspects of the technology and its safety extensively, Riehl said. Now, it is time to work on its implementation.

Riehl said AVs will be the future of transportation.

“If we really go back, since we had the horse and buggy to the combustion engine, that was a huge change,” Riehl said. “Since then we have been looking to automate systems.”

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Manual cars have nearly been phased out across the nation. Technology has advanced enough to automate almost all parts of cars, starting with its braking system. The hardest part was determining whether the vehicle can think on its own and make its own decisions, which came later, Riehl said.

An AV does everything on its own, Riehl said.

The Society of Automotive Engineers defines six levels of automation from zero to five. Level 0 vehicles hardly have any automated features, while level 5 vehicles are fully autonomous or driverless. Researchers are working toward developing level 5 cars, which will involve extensive artificial intelligence. Some circumstances can be programmed and fixed for the vehicle, but it will still need to learn and adapt on the go, Rafferty said.

“When we talk about automated vehicles, automated features, autonomous or fully driverless vehicles, it can mean a lot of different things,” Rafferty said.

Level 1 and 2 vehicles are available for consumers. Tesla autopilot vehicles are a good example of level 2, which are partially automated vehicles, Rafferty said. In these types of vehicles, the driver is expected to be attentive and ready to take over when something happens.

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Rafferty said while there have been videos on YouTube of actors in Tesla autopilot vehicles playing cards or sleeping in the drivers seat, few such instances have lead to crashes. Rafferty believes AV technology could actually make driving, walking and biking safer because inattentive drivers would not be a problem.

But there is still a long way to go, and AVs still can’t operate in rain or in snow.

“It is a real challenge to get these things to operate everywhere at all times,” Rafferty said.

Advances in robotics or machine vision and different sensing technologies could help the vehicle make good decisions on the go, Rafferty said.

Weather conditions are not the only challenges researchers are working through. The patchy regulatory framework across different states in the country is difficult to work with as well. Wisconsin is one of the only states in the legal “gray area,” meaning no law explicitly prohibits the operation of AVs, but nothing explicitly allows it either, Rafferty said.

Assigning liability and culpability is another area the AV testing grounds team is working on. The Department of Motor Vehicles in each state will register these vehicles and ensure they meet the Federal Motor Vehicles Safety Standards. Law enforcement bodies like the state police should be on board as well, since they need to know what they are dealing with, Rafferty said.

Riehl said it is important to understand how law enforcement can pull over an autonomous vehicle. Questions like whether or not it would be a passenger’s fault or the car’s if someone is asleep at the wheel when a violation occurs remain.

AVs will be under a lot of scrutiny, possibly more than vehicles that now have drivers in them, Riehl said. He said once these vehicles prove themselves in the testing grounds, they will be brought into the campus and city.

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Rafferty said the next step would be to introduce these to UW and Epic’s Verona campus. Autonomous shuttles could replace human-driven passenger vans on Epic’s campus in the future.

For a short term demonstration, one of these AVs could be on campus later this year. But this depends on industry partnerships, state support and funding resources, Rafferty said.

There is an ongoing debate about AVs’ environmental and social implications. For the community, AVs are a general improvement because it reduces human work, Riehl said. But AVs can be expensive, and taxi and truck drivers could lose their jobs, Riehl said.

Riehl said it is important to account for these societal differences when developing this technology.

“In 30 to 40 years, it will all be autonomous vehicles, and land use will have to change accordingly,” Rafferty said. “We all have to start thinking about it now, before it comes.”