Senior opinions on the use of autonomous vehicles and technology were studied
FREMONT — Excitement, mixed with skepticism, greeted researchers from Ohio University who stopped into the senior center Monday with a prototype of a self-driving truck.
The stop in Fremont was part of a gerontology research project being conducted on autonomous vehicles by professors from the university and the Ohio Department of Transportation’s Drive Ohio Project.
“I think I’m all for it, if they can prove the safe side of it. I think they need more experience, but they’re interesting. I’ve heard of people riding in their Teslas while they sit in the back seat and play cards.” Bill Armstrong, 76, of Fremont, Ohio, said of self-driving vehicles.
Researchers are conducting a study on self-driving vehicles that includes opinions from individuals aged 40 and over. The results of the study, conducted by Ohio University professors Julie Brown, of the Department of Public Health, and Issam Khoury, of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, will be used to shape future policy for autonomous vehicles.
“The purpose of the study is to find out what you think about automated vehicles,” Brown said. “We hope to discover things that researchers have never thought of before.”
Because of the cost of the vehicles, Brown believes the first public and commercial uses for autonomous vehicles will be by well-funded government and commercial entities, such as the healthcare industry.
Healthcare may use autonomous vehicles
“These vehicles could be useful for people who can’t drive,” Brown said, which is why one of the university’s test vehicles was a passenger van. “This is especially important for those who do not have reliable access to transportation or may have physical health challenges that make driving difficult or impossible.”
Two focus group sessions were held Monday with 30 participants who took surveys and watched a presentation about autonomous vehicles. Once complete, the study will include surveys of several hundred individuals from across Ohio. It will also include an online survey.
There was also a self-driving truck on site for participants to check out, along with some of the engineers involved in developing the vehicle.
The survey questions included a wide range of situations in which automated vehicle users feel comfortable.
One person in the group of survey participants stated that she was more interested in young children on the road than in motorized vehicles.
Each driverless truck has $600,000 worth of technology
The self-driving car project has been ongoing for two years. The university has four vehicles — two pickup trucks and two semis — each with more than 15,000 miles of autonomous driving time.
The cost of the fully-equipped prototype truck brought to the first place is about $600,000.
“The vehicle has LIDAR and it also has RADAR, and they work together,” said Wally Brown, an engineering professor at the University of Oregon. “We collect data in Athens. In Athens we have different roads that we drive, with different routes, different standards, different speeds, pedestrian traffic, car traffic. All these different variables are put in place. Then we capture that data, and we go back and review it with the Ohio Department of Transportation.”
Study participant Janet Bowles was concerned about overloading her computer system and asked if she had ever experienced a “power outage.”
Safety is a concern in autonomous vehicles
“The only time we see her lose her mind is when Athens (Ohio University) comes out at noon,” Wally Brown said. “At 12:05 it was going through there and we picked up about 2,000 targets. Well, uh, it had all these bugs. It didn’t have enough processing power.”
Rural areas have proven to be difficult environments for technology. Vehicles need reliable GPS and cell service. Road surfaces such as gravel roads, narrow roads and narrow roads can also be a problem. Weather conditions, such as snow and ice, also pose a major challenge.
Ohio University vehicles use multiple road monitoring systems, one of which is a laser-based LIDAR 32, or light detection and ranging technology, developed by Velodyne. It uses laser pulses to measure distances from objects. The car’s on-board computer system combines this with standard RADAR and GPS maps to create 3D maps to guide the car.
“I think it’s a good idea for the future, as long as they work out the problems,” Bowles said of autonomous vehicles.
Then she jumped into the passenger seat and asked when she could go for a ride.