Driverless vehicles take hold in Wisconsin

UW-Madison, R&D collaborations advance the work

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Autonomous vehicles range from interstate freight trucks to small people-carriers like this Navya Arma.
Credit: UW-Madison TOPS Lab

Autonomous vehicles are on their way.

Taiwan-based Foxconn Technology Group is pushing for autonomous vehicle lanes in the Wisconsin highway budget and research is progressing in the state thanks to local support from across the stakeholder spectrum.

A partnership that includes the University of Wisconsin-Madison was named one of 10 proving grounds for driverless cars and trucks by the U.S. Department of Transportation in January 2017.

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Other key partners involved in the project include American Family Insurance, Hyper Innovation, Trek Bicycle Corp. and Madison Gas and Electric Co.

While the designation does not come with funding, there has been great value in it, said Peter Rafferty, a program manager at UW-Madison’s Traffic Operations and Safety Laboratory.

The attention has catalyzed several initiatives and brought together numerous organizations to collaborate. Rafferty believes the Wisconsin proving ground sites were chosen because of the diverse backgrounds and range of testing environments they are able to provide.

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“Although we would not have been selected without partnering with the MGA Research facility near Burlington, the range of issues yet to be figured out with autonomous vehicles is very multidisciplinary,” he said.


These issues include cybersecurity; insurance and liability; human factors; interactions with motorcycles, bicycles and pedestrians; planning; and policy.

In May 2017, Gov. Scott Walker issued an executive order to create the Governor’s Steering Committee on Autonomous and Connected Vehicle Testing and Deployment, which advises the governor on how to best advance AV testing and operation in Wisconsin. The order has brought attention to the transformative technologies that are developing, which Rafferty believes is critical.

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“(Autonomous vehicles) are already here to some extent, with more to come,” Rafferty said. “A challenging transition is upon us and regulatory issues have to be addressed. Gov. Walker’s executive order speaks of removing barriers, advancing safe and successful deployment, and identifying what impedes testing. Fortunately, there is not all that much to untangle here, and things are moving along well.”

According to Rafferty, while some proving grounds are centered on bringing automakers to a private track, there are many different issues to tackle among the entire research and development community, which UW-Madison and partners have helped identify and begun to address.

“We are able to offer a range of testing and evaluation environments, but we are currently focused on the simulation environment, urban mobility and equity,” he said. “This includes initiatives related to what some have heard regarding the Foxconn development and the collaboration with Southeast University in Nanjing.”

Offering a virtual simulation environment, appropriate development laboratory settings, campuses, and the strong support of the City of Madison has been an asset to the AV research happening locally. The in-depth research requires collaborations from multiple sectors. Given the nature of new mobility developments, the private sector is especially prominent, Rafferty said.

“A challenging transition is upon us and regulatory issues have to be addressed.”

— Peter Rafferty,  UW-Madison Traffic Operations and Safety Laboratory

As a partner, American Family Insurance brings considerations to the table when addressing a driverless future. 

There are the liability questions, but there are also the questions about how these new technologies will transform communities for which American Family offers insight.

Numerous autonomous vehicles were on display at an event in November 2017 on the University of Wisconsin-Madison College of Engineering campus.
Credit: UW-Madison TOPS Lab

Madison-based Hyper Innovation is a collaborative innovation center that has been instrumental in bringing together other partners with shared corporate interests in autonomous vehicles. Waterloo-based Trek Bicycle is involved as well, bringing a heavy interest in bicycle safety applications with connected and automated vehicles.

On the vehicle and sensor technology side, two notable local partners are Fitchburg-based Mandli Communications Inc., an industry leader in specialized highway data collection and the integration of 3D pavement technology, and Roadview Inc., a leader in the collection, reduction and delivery of large-scale, geo-referenced transportation datasets.

“I am most excited about addressing what we call first-mile/last-mile barriers to mobility,” Rafferty said. “This involves so many facets of transportation, while targeting the improvement of equity, energy use, air quality, mobility choices, urban congestion and economic opportunities. On the vehicle technology side, this brings together electric vehicles, connected vehicles, shared mobility and, of course, driverless vehicles.”

In November, the proving grounds brought an electric driverless shuttle, Navya Arma, to Madison for a demonstration, Rafferty said.

“This is a vehicle that doesn’t have a steering wheel or pedals,” he said. “It was very well received.”

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