Purdue to lead innovation hub focused on autonomous vehicles

Purdue University is launching an autonomous vehicle innovation hub where students and faculty will research a range of issues related to the burgeoning technology, including artificial intelligence, cybersecurity and public policy.

The new center—called the Innovation Hub for Connected and Autonomous Transportation Technologies—will be part of Purdue’s Discovery Park, a 40-acre complex for the school’s STEM undergraduate students, graduate-level researchers and faculty.

Much of the research will be done in partnership with government agencies, including the Indiana Department of Transportation, and private-sector companies. It will focus, especially initially, on commercial uses for autonomous vehicles but will consider issues around passenger vehicles as well.

And the work won’t be just about fully automated vehicles; related technologies—and the public policies and perceptions about them—will be key areas of study, too.

Darcy Bullock, a Purdue civil engineering professor, said that like most transportation changes, convincing the public of the benefits of autonomous technology will take many smaller steps to see results.

“Improved safety systems will be driving this first,” Bullock said, pointing to increasingly common features like lane-departure warnings as evidence.

Technology advancements that lead to driverless cars “will happen very rapidly, possibly in the next year or two," Bullock said. "The role of the university is to evaluate those early developments. … We can do an independent evaluation with this research."

The innovation hub will be housed in parts of the first and second floors of Discovery Park’s Hall for Discovery and Learning Research. Researchers also will manage a nearby three-car garage, which was converted into a laboratory space.

Many of the issues Purdue will tackle have been in the news of late, generating a mix of caution and support.

Earlier this year, an experimental driverless car launched by Uber struck and killed a woman crossing a street in Tempe, Arizona.

Though the vehicle was manned by a human monitor—who was distracted during the crash—criticism regarding the design of the vehicle surfaced after the incident, including questions about the car’s alert system and delayed braking time.

In 2017, a AAA survey revealed a majority of Americans doubted the safety of self-driving cars. Only 10 percent, the report found, said they would feel safer in a hands-off vehicle.

Purdue officials told IBJ that's part of the reason autonomous vehicle research is essential. They said the effort will be guided by “top minds” from the university, the private sector and public-sector.

And the researchers don’t want to stop with passenger cars. They want to empower their corporate partners’ wider dreams, including autonomous airplane technology, energy-efficient freight transportation and more.

Bullock, who directs Purdue's contributions to the Joint Transportation Research Program, will oversee the new hub and the university’s ongoing transportation studies.

The 75-year-old Joint Transportation Research Program pulls together work from the Indiana Department of Transportation and higher education institution partners, all devised to improve the effectiveness and safety of Indiana’s transportation infrastructure.

At Purdue, these projects have included the U.S. Department of Energy's Next-Generation Energy Technologies for Connected and Automated On-Road Vehicles—often just called NEXTCAR. That initiative is led by Gregory Shaver, a professor of mechanical engineering, and focuses on freight transportation connectivity.

It involves using automated technology that allows semi-trucks to connect as small fleets for more fuel-efficient and timely transportation.

Joe McGuinness, commissioner of the Indiana Department of Transportation, said in a statement that Purdue’s “connected and autonomous activities are a natural complement" to Indiana’s Next Level Roads investment of $30 billion over the next 20 years.

Purdue officials said they plan a cross-disciplinary approach to autonomous vehicle research that could benefit multiple industries.

"There's use for this in the space, defense, agricultural sectors," said David McKinnis, a special adviser for Purdue's Office of Corporate and Global Partnerships, which generates research-funding partnerships and study opportunities for students with the help of international programs, corporate partners and federal support. "All have major programs that can connect with autonomous vehicle research.”

Research about autonomous cars is a natural in Indiana, which ranks No. 2 in the country for gross domestic product generated from the automotive industry, according to the Indiana Economic Development Corp. Michigan holds the No. 1 spot.

McKinnis said the innovation hub's initiatives have about a dozen private partners, including an ongoing relationship with Ford. Most, if not all, of the partnerships were initiated by the companies themselves.

“Every company is deeply concerned about safety,” McKinnis added. “For the most part, the companies are coming to Purdue and saying ‘help us.’”

Conexus Indiana, an organization that promotes talent cultivation and support in the manufacturing and logistics industries, call autonomous technology a key advancement to which Indiana's students and company leaders must adapt.

"I think we're going to be a champion for this research and promote the necessary evolution of this technology," CEO Mark Howell said of the state's research in the field.

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