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Purdue Researchers Bringing Self-Driving Technology To Indiana Roads

Self-driving cars are still years away. But the technology that will make them work is on the ground in Indiana, and those innovations are already making some roads in the state safer.

Darcy Bullock directs the Joint Transportation Research Program at Purdue University. He and his colleagues are paving the way for autonomous cars by working with private and public institutions.

"You get those stakeholders at the table and they are part of it, so it is not just a narrow silo'd research project," Bullock says. "But you've got agencies that have come together, so when you are ready for implementation, they've already had that conversation, so implementation works much better."

Researchers here partner closely with the Indiana Department of Transportation and use technology to make improvements to roads and traffic flow.

A connected corridor along U.S. route 231 uses a mix of technology so traffic signals and vehicles can talk to each other. If your car knows when a light will change, it can use fuel more efficiently, and Bullock says it could also make intersections safer.

“We all see close calls at signalized intersections on a routine basis. We as traffic engineers evaluate statewide crash stats. When we think about connected vehicles, when we can get anonymized information about close calls,  those close calls will be leading indicators, so we can identify intersections that might be experiencing some safety issues, if we can find that before the crash happens, that’s a win for everybody," Bullock says.

It seems futuristic, but it’s already here. You can find these devices at stop lights near the Purdue campus. And Toyota recently announced all its new vehicles will be able to talk to these connected sensors.

Nearly every step along in the autonomous car development process helps make roads safer for drivers. Which makes sense since a lot of the money to support Bullock’s team comes from the state transportation department.

Trucking Industry May Be First To Get The Technology

Self-driving cars require tons of data from your vehicle to work safely and effectively. That gives some people pause, and it's why Bullock sees the trucking industry as a good place to start.

“The commercial vehicle space is going to be the early wins on that," Bullock says. "The private sector has a strong interest. The large carriers want safe operations so they are already way out in front in terms of vehicle telematics, and they have good policy in place.”

Indiana recently passed a law that allows semi-trucks to form small groups to improve safety and fuel efficiency. It’s called platooning.

“One of the early opportunities in the autonomous world is truck platooning," Bullock says. "What this really includes is advanced tech on trucks and an electronic coupling between trucks so they can have close following distances. It can reduce fuel consumption 10 to 20 percent."

That technology will make trucks safer whether they are linked together or not.

Mapping Out The Landscape

To make autonomous vehicles a reality, they will need to be able to understand where they are and what’s around them. That’s where the Lidar Van comes into play.

Its sensors can map out its surroundings right down to the road markers between lanes. That’s what JTRP Associate Director, Ayman Habib is working on.

“Autonomous cars will have lower grade type of theses sensors but this is designed mainly to give you very accurate digital map of the infrastructure,” Habib says.

The detailed maps vehicles like the Lidar Van creates will be part of what autonomous cars use in order to navigate their surroundings.

This information is vital to autonomous transportation, but it is only one piece of a puzzle that must be solved before self-driving cars can become ubiquitous.

The devil is in the details when it comes to autonomous vehicles, and many of those details are being ironed out more quickly than you might think.

Bullock says we will see trucks linked up driving down U.S. roads in the next few months, and he anticipates platooning will come to Indiana in the next year.

Want to contact your legislators about an issue that matters to you? Find out how to contact your senators and member of Congress here.

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