The Future of Self-Driving Cars in America's Heartland

A pack of cars races past a group of fans sitting in the shade during the VisitFlorida.com Sports Car 250 at Road America on August 10, 2013, in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin.

SourceBrian Cleary/Getty

Why you should care

If Wisconsinites can agree with Silicon Valley on self-driving cars, can’t everyone else?

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Near Elkhart Lake in rural Wisconsin, racecar drivers call the track the “National Park of Speed” for the hundreds of campsites scattered along its forested four-mile course. For almost seven decades, spectators have watched cars jet by as they picnic on surrounding hillsides, which are often colorfully named after whatever group is known to down beers there — Fireman’s Hill and so on. But the Road America campus is not just a part of history anymore — it’s shaping it. In mid-January the track in cheesehead country joined sites from Silicon Valley to Motor City as one of 10 federally approved locations for testing self-driving vehicles.

In one of the final acts of the Obama administration, the Department of Transportation announced the site selection the day before Donald Trump’s inauguration. Since then, Trump and his transportation secretary, Elaine Chao, ostensibly have given the green light for further development of autonomous vehicles, or AVs. During her U.S. Senate confirmation hearing, Chao gave testimony that experts say could juice AV efforts as she noted the “federal role in these sectors is still in its infancy” and that she would work as “a catalyst,” not “an impediment.” Others see Trump’s campaign promise of infrastructure investment as an opportunity to install digital road markers, sensors and even Wi-Fi hotspots. Says John Ewert, communications director for Elkhart Lake’s Road America: “As cities channel funds to improve their infrastructures [and] refurbishing, they can look into: Do we need to integrate any autonomous technology?”

The self-driving revolution could hit the trucking industry within five years … eliminating hundreds of thousands of jobs.

That question, and others, will get a test-drive here starting this summer, and the state’s climate and Road America’s quirks will make for an especially interesting experiment. “The key thing that distinguishes us is an array of testing environments,” says Peter Rafferty, head of the Traffic Operations and Safety Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, whose researchers will observe the self-driving cars at Road America. Unpredictable, harsh winters will challenge camera-based sensors: What happens when cars can’t “see” highway signs or lane markers? Used in the past to test Humvees for the military, the Road America course has blind inclines, paved and unpaved pathways, bridges and overpasses — in short, enough variety to simulate most driving situations.

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In Madison, the state capital and home to Wisconsin’s flagship university, administrators plan to use self-driving shuttles to transport students. Some may imagine a Jetsons-esque personal AV becoming the Model T of the next generation. But experts like Jonathan Levine, a University of Michigan professor of architecture and urban planning, see multiperson shuttles becoming more prevalent than personal cars. If so, it would dramatically reshape cities and, accordingly, society. What happens to stringent parking and zoning laws if we can send our cars back home after they drop us off downtown?

Similar to crafting an engine, building self-driving cars and the infrastructure to support them will mean piecing together multiple parts — and each DOT site is designed to test a specific component. Texas has significant state funding backing it, as does Michigan, a hotbed for AV tech powered primarily by the “Big Three” American automakers (General Motors, Ford, Chrysler). Another site, Iowa City, is known for its “full-scale driving simulators,” Rafferty notes, including tests that involve humans. Pittsburgh drew headlines in September when it invited Uber to install self-driving ride shares in the Steel City, while California is the only state granted two DOT test designations — not surprising considering the tech community’s leadership in the field.

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The cameras on a pilot model of an Uber self-driving car.

Source Angelo Merendino/Getty

In an era that glorifies disruption, few technological advances have the potential to be as radically transformative as AVs — and change is coming at racecar velocity. The self-driving revolution could hit the trucking industry within five years and the general public within the next decade, eliminating hundreds of thousands of jobs. Jonathan Riehl, a UW-Madison researcher, compares it to the job loss that accompanied the decline of manufacturing. “[The jobs] are going to be lost either way,” Riehl says. “Preparing for it, maybe you can figure out how to transition better.” He notes another disruption: AVs could drastically increase carbon emissions if people start taking longer commutes, additional road trips, even extra runs to the grocery store. “There’s a huge potential for an increase in vehicle miles traveled,” he says.

Legislative roadblocks may act as speed bumps to a driverless future. A lack of data prevents lawmakers from making pivotal decisions and, at the national level, a reluctance to establish guidelines has resulted in piecemeal laws. Considering how conservatives view federal backseat driving, the Trump administration may be loathe to create a framework. “It’s up to the states to lead,” says Wisconsin Rep. Adam Neylon, although he agrees that at some point there should be consistent national rules. New York has considered banning self-driving cars, and a Massachusetts lawmaker has suggested taxing them by the mile to avoid “zombie cars” that circle endlessly while waiting for their owners to return.

Innovation in Wisconsin faces its own challenges, not the least of which is that it relies on financial support from the university system with little additional state funding. Still, one of the most surprising things about AV testing in Wisconsin is how openly lawmakers and the community have embraced it. They see it as one solution to decreasing distracted-driving deaths and the state’s drinking-and-driving epidemic. Neylon, who chairs the Wisconsin house’s Committee on Jobs and the Economy, says Wisconsin shouldn’t be afraid to grab the wheel: He would like to see the Badger State position itself “as a leader in embracing this technology and become a hub of economic development.”

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