High Tech Meets the Road at Meredith Middle School

The University of Iowa brought its semi-autonomous car to Meredith Middle School to demonstrate where high tech literally meets the road.

The University of Iowa brought its semi-autonomous car to Meredith Middle School to demonstrate where high tech literally meets the road.

Meredith Middle School scored a notable first on Wednesday, Back to the Future Day, when it opened its parking lot to a futuristic vehicle that practically drove itself all the way from Iowa City so inquisitive students could pile in for a closer inspection of what’s in store when they get their driver’s licenses.

Dr. Daniel McGehee, Director of the Human Factors & Vehicle Safety Research Division at the University of Iowa Public Policy Center, piloted a prototype Volvo XC 90 SUV to Des Moines as part of an ambitious campaign to educate the driving public about semi-autonomous vehicles. They’re coming soon to an auto dealer near you but, according to Dr. McGehee, one has never before visited an American school.

“The technology is here,” he said. “Now we need to teach people about it and how it works so they’ll embrace it and trust it.”

At first glance the car looks like a regular high-end import except for the detailing on the shiny black exterior that identifies it as a U of I “Research Vehicle.” There’s also a decal from the National Safety Council and another that touts Iowa’s National Advanced Driving Simulator, a facility that has placed the university and Dr. McGehee at the forefront of driverless automotive technology for more than 20 years. But McGehee was most anxious to drive traffic to the seal of an important website he helped launch last week in Washington D.C.

“MyCarDoesWhat.org is the real headline of what this is all about,” he said. “It’s a clearinghouse for all sorts of information about the research and development that’s been going on for decades, some of which is already coming off assembly lines,” steering personal transportation toward the “crash-free future” that McGehee has long envisioned.

To what does Meredith owe the distinction of being the first school in the nation to host such a demonstration?

“One of my college pals works in Dr. McGehee’s lab,” explained Iowa grad Adam Freese who teaches a STEM course in Design at Meredith and coaches cross country next door at Hoover. “He told me about Dr. McGehee’s plan for an educational tour and campaign and I said it would be great if we could be involved and here we are.”

You’ve never dealt with a car salesman who has McGehee’s credentials. He started his career in human engineering as a cockpit designer for Boeing Aircraft before coming to Iowa and spearheading the pioneering work in driver-assisted technology.

While classes filed outside and pored over his car’s leather interior and instrument panel he extolled its equipment. Many of the kids wanted to know about the sound system and other available colors but McGehee kept telling them about the “force field” that surrounds the vehicle in the form of radar, lasers, cameras and micro-sensors. Speaking of colors, McGehee insisted his model is in Hawkeye school colors though it appears to be solid black. But look at the license plate, he suggested, which reads AU2M8. “What’s the symbol for gold on the periodic table?” McGehee asked. Ah yes, Au.

Iowa City is located in Johnson County which has issued a first-of-its-kind proclamation welcoming companies to test automated vehicles on its roads. And the Iowa City Airport Commission is transforming a retired runway into a closed-course testing facility for automated driving research.  Along with the National Advanced Driving Simulator and the Transportation & Vehicle Safety Policy program at the U of I, the community is working to make Johnson County the ideal spot for private companies to come and test their automated vehicle innovations.

In between hands-on sessions McGehee visited classes at both Meredith and Hoover where he outlined the history of driver assistance technology and speculated about its immediate future. He told his listeners about the 1958 Chrysler Imperial that featured the first cruise control. And he confidently predicted that by the time current middle school students graduate college the driver-override software systems like the ones in his demo mobile will be standard on all cars.

“95% of all automobile crashes are caused by driver error,” McGehee said. “More than 32,000 people are killed in this country every year on the road. It’s a public health issue. And among young people like you traffic accidents are the leading cause of death.”

Not to worry, though. Soon we’ll all be able to sit back, enjoy the ride and leave the braking and steering and navigation to the brains under the hood.

McGehee’s ride is one of 1,927 such models that Swedish automaker Volvo is producing (Volvo was established in 1927). He got his even before the Swedish ambassador to the U.S. was issued one for tooling around the nation’s capital.

It’s clear that Driver’s Ed is in for a recall. The change that’s coming (fast) is no less than the difference between the old “10 o’clock, 2 o’clock” grip on the steering wheel and “Look, Ma, no hands!”  The dreaded parallel parking exercise that used to be a rite of passage for teenagers acquiring their first license may soon be a thing of the past. McGehee put his wheels to that old test and they quickly maneuvered between the cars of Meredith principal David Johns and vice-principal Kip Coleman with no help at all from the “driver.” In fact, the only hands involved were the ones that lined the sidewalk, clapping.

Not all of the student queries pertained to paint colors and sound systems. In the library at Hoover the last question of the day got right to the point of why McGehee and Herky (Herbie the “Love Bug’s” cousin?) made the trip:

“What should I study in college if I want to get into a field like this?” someone wanted to know. Any one of a number of disciplines, McGehee said. In the meantime, step outside and let me show you something…

To learn more about the future of driving click here: https://mycardoeswhat.org/

Photos of University of Iowa’s Self-Piloted Auto at Meredith

DMPS-TV Video of the semi-autonomous vehicle

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