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UW-Madison researchers get federal OK to test driverless cars

The AP

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have received federal approval to start testing driverless cars at sites around Wisconsin.

The U.S. Department of Transportation recently designated UW-Madison’s Traffic Operations and Safety Laboratory as one of 10 groups nationwide as proving grounds for the vehicles, the Wisconsin State Journal reported.

The lab does not have any driverless cars of its own and has not yet partnered with a company that wants to test the technology in Wisconsin. But researchers say the federal designation boosts Wisconsin’s profile in research into the cars, known as autonomous vehicles.

“It really helps put our name out there,” said Peter Rafferty, a researcher in the transportation lab.

Rafferty said the lab is talking with companies about testing vehicles. If a partner is found, he said, “there’s no reason why we couldn’t be months away” from seeing driverless cars in Wisconsin.

The sites where companies and UW researchers can test autonomous vehicles range from closed courses to busy state highways, and are meant to match the different capabilities of driverless cars.

Proponents say driverless cars can make roads safer by cutting down on crashes caused by mistakes, inattention or drunken driving.

Vehicles with technology still in the early stages of development would start at the MGA Research Corp.’s large test facility near Burlington or the Road America race track near Elkhart Lake.

Researchers will use those closed facilities to ensure the cars are ready for use at the next level of testing sites: UW-Madison and the Epic Systems campus in Verona. The most advanced vehicles would be tested on Madison’s city streets and on state highways.

Driverless cars employ a mix of GPS, cameras and laser-sensing systems to detect other cars, road signs, traffic signals and pedestrians.

Rafferty said researchers will rigorously test the technology to make sure it’s ready to interact with the public, and cars will still have human attendants who can take over the controls if necessary.

“Safety really is an underlying, fundamental priority of all of this,” he said.

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