Autonomous cars addressing rural road blocks
8/19/2021 1:56:00 PM
By Emily Jankauski
Self-driving cars evoke different emotions for everyone. For some it raises safety concerns, for others it’s the awe of jaw-dropping technology. But perhaps the coolest thing about autonomous cars is their inclusivity, potentially providing transportation to pretty much everyone.
That’s all thanks to researchers like Alireza Talebpour, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and an Illinois Center for Transportation researcher.
Adapting to rural roads
Talebpour is assisting with two autonomous vehicle research efforts with the first being the Automated Vehicles for All project alongside Samer Hamdar, a George Washington University School of Engineering & Applied Science associate professor, and Francis Assadian, a University of California Davis Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering professor. The project is led by Reza Langari, a Texas A&M J. Mike Walker '66 Department of Mechanical Engineering professor.
The $7 million project, awarded by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Automated Driving System Demonstration Grants, puts autonomous cars on rural roads.
“In city areas, if you don't have a car, there’s always a bus or a train service that you can use,” Talebpour said. “Autonomous driving is focused on cities. The whole reason for that is that there’s a focus on ride-sharing, so that’s where you find the customers in downtown areas.”
But there’s a problem with that business model as it leaves out 20 percent of the U.S. population, according to Talebpour.
“These people don't have access to (transportation) as they get old,” Talebpour said. “They lose their licenses or because of medication they can't drive for some period of time.”
“These are people (who) are in more need of such technology,” he added. “This is something that doesn't exist, and we're trying to address that.”
The College Station, Texas-based campus will be one of four data collection sites, including Rantoul, Ill., Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C. The capital city varies from the other selections in that it specifically targets how autonomous vehicles interact with pedestrians and cyclists — something not typically seen on rural roads.
Here in Illinois, Talebpour's got the green light from the Village of Rantoul, where ICT is housed, to create a ride-sharing service.
“Rantoul’s a perfect environment, from that perspective, because it has the rural environment to do testing and research,” Talebpour said. “We are going to do a ton of research in Rantoul, and that’s something I’m really looking forward to.”
Five autonomous cars will be “wandering around” the selected rural roads over the next three years.
What qualifies as a rural road?
Talebpour's identified three characteristics — lack of road markings, proper signs and good pavement conditions.
But that’s not all Talebpour's going to have to account for. Different environments could mean different outcomes.
“From state to state, even from county to county, (rural roads) change significantly,” he said. “So we need to find a way to make sure we can categorize them in (a) meaning(ful way) and (provide) enough of the features that we want in order to make sure the technology that we develop would also be applicable to the entire United States.”
As for the cars? They're driverless. Behind the wheel is a safety driver who won't take over unless it’s an emergency.
They're also equipped with sensors and a little bit of room for passengers in the back seat, but there’s “not a lot of (room) there,” Talebpour joked.
The effort is anticipated to reach completion by 2025.