Wisconsin partnership names proving grounds for USDOT’s driverless vehicle program


A partnership between the University of Wisconsin-Madison and one of the USA’s leading independent providers of automotive testing services and equipment engineers will be leading research across the state, after the US Department of Transportation (USDOT) named the Wisconsin Proving Ground sites as one of the 10 national testing locations for driverless cars and trucks.

The Traffic Operations and Safety Laboratory (TOPS) in the UW-Madison College of Engineering, together with Akron, and New York-based MGA Research, led an effort to gather space and expertise to attract researchers testing autonomous vehicles (AVs) in all sorts of conditions.

The Wisconsin AV Proving Grounds include MGA’s Burlington site, which features 400 acres of roadways and crash-testing facilities originally built as a proving ground for American Motors cars. The list of sites also includes the 4 mile-long (6.4km) racing circuit at Road America in Plymouth, and the sprawling headquarters of Epic Systems in Verona, which both provide secure environments for AV testing. UW-Madison’s own streets are also included in the proving grounds. The research team says that Madison city roads, Wisconsin highways, and the campus layouts at UW-Madison and Epic would pose more public and realistically interactive situations for driverless vehicles.

Peter Rafferty, a program manager at UW-Madison’s TOPS Lab, will lead the research. Rafferty and the City of Madison are interested in the way the vehicles could be deployed to better connect people who cannot afford or otherwise operate their own cars to public transit and vital services like health care. Industry users of the proving grounds could also draw on UW-Madison experts in data collection, high-resolution mapping, computer and vehicle networking, and engine and power production.

“There are still a lot of questions of safety and human interaction and plenty of technological challenges that need addressing,” noted Rafferty. “The USDOT wants to make sure the lessons learned in that work are being shared, and being involved in this network means Wisconsin has access to that knowledge and an opportunity to contribute. 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. We have places to test most or all of them.”

Rafferty continued, “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. An intersection in the middle of campus at class-changing time is a completely different, but equally important, set of challenges to address. There are all kinds of concepts in formulation, and I really want to get those vehicles here to start working on proving their capabilities and user acceptance. And because we have this commitment to infrastructure, we can get them going here for thousands of dollars instead of millions of dollars.”

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About Author


Tom has edited Traffic Technology International (TTi) magazine and its Traffic Technology Today website since May 2014. During his time at the title, he has interviewed some of the top transportation chiefs at public agencies around the world as well as CEOs of leading multinationals and ground-breaking start-ups. Tom's earlier career saw him working on some the UK's leading consumer magazine titles. He has a law degree from the London School of Economics (LSE).