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UW Gets the “Green Light” to Test Driverless Cars in Madison


The University of Madison’s Traffic Operations and Safety Laboratory has been chosen by the U.S. Department of Transportation to be one of ten groups across the nation that is authorized to test autonomous vehicles.

Autonomous vehicles use advanced GPS, camera, and laser-sensing systems that detect and respond to other cars, traffic signs, signals, and pedestrians. The lab doesn’t have driverless cars of their own and have not partnered with a company that wants to test the technology yet. However, they have been in contact with several companies. Once they come to an agreement, driverless cars could be on the roads a few months later. Although the tests haven’t started, the federal designation has boosted Wisconsin’s prestige in a unique new technology that could change the future of transportation.

Where will the cars be tested?

Vehicles with technology that is still in the early phases of development will be tested at the MGA Research Corporation’s test facility near Burlington, or at the Road America race track near Elkhart Lake. At the closed facilities, researchers will make sure that the cars are ready for the next-level testing sites at UW-Madison or at the Epic Systems campus in Verona. The most advanced vehicles will be tested on Madison’s city streets and highways.

Although the idea of driverless cars can be unnerving, researcher Peter Rafferty explained, “Safety really is an underlying, fundamental priority of all of this.” The cars will be rigorously tested before they make their way onto the roads and human attendants will be able to take over control of the car if necessary. Researchers hope to test the vehicles in a variety of conditions, from complex road situations where there is a mixture of road users (pedestrians, bicyclists, mopeds), to high-speed freeway travel. They also hope to see how the vehicles perform in different weather conditions.