In one of its last acts under the Obama administration, the U.S. Department of Transportation last week announced it had picked 10 sites as locations for testing self-driving cars before they hit U.S. roadways. The selections follows a nationwide competition among national testing centers that began in November. Automakers will share the facilities and data to foster innovations that can safely transform personal and commercial mobility, expand capacity and open new doors to disadvantaged people and communities, says outgoing U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.

 

“The designated proving grounds will collectively form a Community of Practice around safe testing and deployment,” says Foxx. “This group will openly share best practices for the safe conduct of testing and operations as they are developed, enabling participants and the general public to learn at a faster rate and accelerate the pace of safe deployment.”

 

The proving grounds will also provide critical insights into optimal big data usage through automated vehicle testing, and will serve as a foundation for building a community of practice around automated vehicle research Foxx says.

 

Designees were selected from a competitive group of over 60 applicants. They included academic institutions, state Departments of Transportation, cities, and private entities and partnerships. Proving grounds designees all have different facilities that can be used to gauge safety, manage various roadways and conditions, and handle various types of vehicles.

 

The Proving Ground designees are:

City of Pittsburgh and the Thomas D. Larson Pennsylvania Transportation Institute

Texas AV Proving Grounds Partnership

U.S. Army Aberdeen Test Center

American Center for Mobility (ACM) at Willow Run

Contra Costa Transportation Authority (CCTA) & GoMentum Station

San Diego Association of Governments

Iowa City Area Development Group

University of Wisconsin-Madison

Central Florida Automated Vehicle Partners

North Carolina Turnpike Authority

 

The future of transportation undoubtedly includes vehicles which operate with little or no input from human operators, but there are still a lot of questions about safety and human interaction, as well as plenty of technological challenges that need addressing, says Peter Rafferty, a program manager at University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Traffic Operations and Safety Laboratory (TOPS). AV technology in development ranges from one- and two-person vehicles and small buses for local trips up to platoons of trucks driving in tandem on the interstate, and UW-Madison has places to test most or all of those vehicles, he says.

 

“There’s evidence of unmet demand for these proving grounds—controlled roads where you can safely challenge a vehicle and figure out how to make it react differently to a big rock in its way than it would to a shopping bag in the street or to tell the difference between the ruts that develop in new snow and broken pavement,” says Rafferty.

 

The Wisconsin AV Proving Grounds includes MGA Research’s Burlington site—400 acres of roadways and crash-testing facilities originally built as a proving ground for American Motors cars—and the four-mile racing circuit at Road America in Plymouth will provide secure environments for AV testing. The headquarters of Epic Systems in Verona and UW–Madison’s own streets are also included in the proving grounds, and present more public and realistically interactive situations for driverless vehicles, Rafferty says.

 

Considering the commitments from Tesla Motors, BMW AG, General Motors, Ford Motor and Volvo to produce fully autonomous cars within five years, and continued work by Alphabet’s Google Self-Driving Car Project, it seems federally appointed proving grounds are a good idea. What are your thoughts? Is this an appropriate next step for testing autonomous vehicles?