Industry Spotlight: Autonomous Mobility

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If you ask people the likelihood of riding in an autonomous vehicle, 70 percent say it will occur in the next 15 years.

That's a remarkable admission for a nation that prides itself on the so-called car culture, for a country that's made the drive-thru lane a way of life and still gets excited over road trips.

But the United States also loses 34,000 people a year who die in traffic accidents. The average U.S. citizen has a daily 52-minute commute to work and traffic jams are the rule rather than the exception in virtually every major U.S. city.

Hertz used to promote its rental car business with the line, "Let us put you in the driver's seat." Now the nation's automakers and IT giants are spending billions to get you out of the driver's seat.

What brought about this change? There are probably a number of factors but one of them leads back to Peoria.

Photo: Carnegie Mellon University

Photo: Carnegie Mellon University

In the early 21st century, the U.S. government sought to accelerate development of robotic military vehicles so DARPA (that's the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) set up a series of challenges, offering a million-dollar prize to the winner of a robotic race held in the California desert. An entry co-sponsored by Caterpillar Inc. and Carnegie-Mellon University showed the world that a driverless vehicle wasn't just science fiction.

Sam Kherat, a 20-year employee at Caterpillar, took part in several of those DARPA events. By 2007, the automotive industry had taken note of the autonomous advancements demonstrated at the challenges, he recently told a group of 30 fourth-graders gathered at Goodwill Commons in Peoria for a STEM Academy program.

Caterpillar, along with Komatsu, the Japanese heavy-equipment manufacturer with a plant in Peoria, are no strangers to the concept of autonomous vehicles. Both companies have been making and selling robotic mining trucks for years.

Photo:  Torc Robotics

But it's one thing to develop an autonomous vehicle for use in an isolated mine in Australia and another to perfect one for use on a U.S. street where pedestrians, bicyclists and distracted drivers share the road, said Kherat, now an adjunct professor of robotics at Bradley University and Eureka College.

That will take data and plenty of testing, he said. So the announcement earlier this month of a pilot program in Downtown Peoria where an autonomous Lexus will be circulating this summer should come as no surprise.

Bobby Hambrick, the founder of AutonomouStuff, the Morton-based software and engineering firm that's become a national leader in the promotion of automated driving, called the pilot program the start "of a new era for Peoria."

"We've established a route downtown for the continuous collection of data. We've developed a high-definition map of the area. We've done a lot of testing and we'll do more," he said.

No, you won't see driverless cars rolling through Peoria streets--not yet anyway. Hambrick said a driver would be behind the wheel in the initial tests. When might cars roll solo? "In the second phase, later this year," said Hambrick, who set up the company in 2010.

"If it plays in Peoria, it will play anywhere. We're counting on that," he said.

But the several-block pilot program may just be the start of an autonomous Peoria. The city is seeking a U.S. Department of Transportation grant that's making $60 million available nationally for demonstration projects involving driverless vehicles. No one recipient can receive more than $10 million and each state is limited to $15 million.

A coalition called Nexmobi led by Eng Seng Loh, the former director of Caterpillar's corporate strategy and risk management group and now serves as CEO of Certus Strategies, is working to secure the grant for Peoria.

"Nexmobi is an important private-public partnership that is collectively pursuing a brighter future for Peoria," said Loh.

Peoria may seem like an unlikely place for the driverless movement to take hold. After all, it's a city, like others, that surrendered its downtown to the car, replacing vintage buildings with parking decks while allowing trucks and automobiles unencumbered one-way access on downtown streets like Jefferson and Adams.

But Peoria is also a city that's embracing innovation, said Jake Hamann, executive director of the newly-formed Peoria Innovation Alliance.

"Our history along with the global growth of autonomous vehicle technology has positioned our region as a hotspot of talent, resources and expertise not found elsewhere in world," said Hamann.

Kherat, whose expertise in artificial intelligence has him traveling to Berlin and Dubai this summer, believes the Peoria area could also help advance the autonomous movement through the collaboration of some of that expertise. "We're surrounded here by companies that have had success with autonomous vehicles," he said, referring to his former employer and Komatsu.

By coming together, companies could minimize research and development time," he said. "We're not asking for their secrets. We're looking at common technology," he said.

Kherat pointed to area firms like State Farm and Rivian in Bloomington-Normal and John Deere in Moline that could also be involved along. Area schools like Bradley, Eureka, Illinois Central College and the University of Illinois would be natural partners, as well, he said.

But there's another area group Kherat would like to involve: central Illinois young people. "We need to educate our young people on the conversion ahead--from driving to self-driving vehicles," he said.

Our history along with the global growth of autonomous vehicle technology has positioned our region as a hotspot of talent, resources and expertise not found elsewhere in world.
— Jake Hamann

The world has gone through a conversion before: in the early 20th century when the automobile replaced the horse as the main means of transportation.

Kherat showed a graph to the STEM class that charted the rise and decline of the number of horses in this country along with the number of cars.

Photo: Peoria Public Library Archives

Photo: Peoria Public Library Archives

It's important to remember that it took decades from the time the auto was invented before the horse was completely replaced, he said. A similar disruption with self-driving vehicles and human-driven cars sharing the road is in our future, said Kherat.

Again, if we're going to gather data on the challenge ahead, Peoria is a great place to do it, said Loh. "You've got urban, surburban and rural roads at your disposal--all within a few minutes' drive," he said.

Officials at Tri-County Regional Planning said a DOT decision on a federal grant for autonomous should be announced later this year.