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The ride-hailing company Uber tested driverless cars last year in Pittsburgh. Researchers at UW-Madison have received federal approval to start testing the technology in Wisconsin.

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Madison streets, state highways and the campuses of UW-Madison and Epic Systems could soon be laboratories for driverless cars, after federal regulators gave a team of UW researchers approval to test the emerging technology at sites around Wisconsin.

UW-Madison’s Traffic Operations and Safety Laboratory was one of 10 groups nationwide that the U.S. Department of Transportation designated last week as proving grounds for autonomous vehicles, as the cars are also known.

The lab doesn’t have any driverless cars of its own, and it has not yet partnered with a company that wants to test the technology in Wisconsin — so don’t count on seeing an empty car piloting itself around city streets on your next commute.

But researchers say the federal designation boosts Wisconsin’s profile in research that will likely shape the future of transportation.

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

The lab is in talks with companies about testing vehicles here, Rafferty said. If they do, he said, “there’s no reason why we couldn’t be months away” from seeing driverless cars in Wisconsin.

Test sites in Madison

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.

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 — which employ a mix of GPS, cameras and laser-sensing systems to detect other cars, road signs, traffic signals and pedestrians — 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 will face an array of challenges on different roads — from the complex, low-speed flow of people, bicycles, mopeds and cars at UW-Madison to the high-speed trial of freeway driving.

But Rafferty said researchers will rigorously test the technology to ensure 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,” Rafferty said.

Other organizations chosen as proving grounds for autonomous vehicles include transportation and government agencies in California, Texas and Florida, as well as the city of Pittsburgh, where the ride-hailing company Uber started ferrying passengers in a fleet of driverless cars last year.

Federal officials say the proving grounds will advance the technology by sharing information and findings about how to safely test and operate the vehicles.

‘Plenty of research questions’

Along with the convenience of hopping into a car that can drive itself, proponents of autonomous vehicle technology say it has the potential to make roads much safer by cutting down on crashes caused by mistakes, inattention or intoxicated driving.

UW is also partnering with engineers from the city of Madison to explore how driverless cars could make the city more equitable.

One potential use for the technology is self-driving mini-buses that could provide another transportation option for people who can’t afford cars and live far from bus lines.

Testing the technology in Wisconsin could also answer questions about how autonomous vehicles perform in cold and snowy conditions, researchers noted in their proposal to the Department of Transportation.

“There’s plenty of research questions that we’re eager to tackle,” Rafferty said.

Rafferty’s lab is doing more technical research as well into how the cars could affect an age-old scourge of human drivers — traffic jams — since autonomous vehicles’ faster reaction times could increase the capacity of roads. And researchers are looking into the “transitional period” that will soon be upon us, when the shift from all-human to all-driverless transportation means people and autonomous cars will share the same roadways, Rafferty said.

“This is coming whether we do anything or not, and we are eager to be a bigger part of this,” Rafferty said.

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Nico Savidge is the higher education reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.