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Driverless vehicle experiment underway in 'Smart City' of Racine

Chuck Quirmbach
The Racine Badger begins to roll. Passengers onboard include Wisconsin DOT Secretary Craig Thompson (center row, passenger side) and Racine Mayor Cory Mason (front row, passenger side). Their hands are raised to symbolize hands-free driving in an autonomous vehicle.

The city of Racine will be the first in Southeastern Wisconsin to experiment with vehicles that can be operated without a driver. But Racine leaders said it will be a while — maybe a long while — before there's a lot of use of autonomous cars and buses in that community of 78,000 people.

Racine Mayor Cory Mason has been pushing his municipality to live up to its 2019 designation as a "Smart City." Briefly put, the title means harnessing technology to improve livability and sustainability, including in public transit.

At a news conference Monday, Mason unveiled a potential new player in Racine's Smart City lineup.

"It is my distinct pleasure to introduce to all of you today, the Racine Badger," Mason said.

The Racine Badger is a small electric shuttle bus, red and white except on the front, which is painted with a black and white badger's face. It will be tested at Gateway Technical College's lakefront campus in Racine and on some nearby streets.

Chuck Quirmbach
The front end of the Racine Badger is made to look like a badger.

UW-Madison is a partner in the project. Professor David Noyce directs UW-Madison's Traffic Operations and Safety Lab. He said the Racine Badger is big on using sensors, including ones involving Light Detection and Ranging.

Noyce explained how the Racine Badger's sensors work: "Sensing forward, backward, and sideways from the LIDAR [Light Detection and Ranging] standpoint."

The Racine Badger uses "camera vision [and] GPS coordinates. That's how it maps its route and sees what may be available, or [if it is] in the way of a vehicle as it's moving forward," Noyce said.

Noyce said he tested a different autonomous vehicle in Madison a couple of years ago and learned how to program it, set the GPS course, and how some of the basic technology works.

The tech partner for the Racine Badger is Perrone Robotics, a Virginia-based software firm.

Tony Piper of Perron Robotics sat behind the wheel Monday and took small groups of people for a ride. After about 100 feet, he changed the Racine Badger to autonomous mode, and it was hands off the steering wheel.

"And away we go," Piper said.

The vehicle then cruised for about a quarter mile down a programmed route along a lakefront road and back.

As the Racine Badger drove hands free, Piper kept his right foot close to the floor pedals.

Piper said, "The rule of autonomous driving is you want your foot to be where your vehicle wants to go. So, if you want to continue cover [place your foot over] the gas. In a situation like this where stopping is probably more appropriate, you cover [place your foot over] the brake."

 Racine Mayor Cory Mason speaks during Monday's news conference at the Gateway Technical College campus along Racine's lakefront.
Chuck Quirmbach
Racine Mayor Cory Mason speaks during Monday's news conference at the Gateway Technical College campus along Racine's lakefront.

The ride in the Racine Badger was trouble-free. WUWM asked Mayor Mason what performance data he has to see from the vehicle before it would get use in the community, either with or without a potential driver at the wheel.

Mason said, "Make sure it can work in the real world, if you will. In a climate that can be unforgiving in the winter time, right? And really make sure that if we're going to deploy this technology that it works — and works in settings that people will really face."

Mason said he doesn't have an exact date when the experiment would be over and when the real use would start.

But the Wisconsin Department of Transportation is already touting potential benefits of autonomous vehicles. DOT Secretary Craig Thompson said they could dramatically reduce the number of traffic deaths.

"The promise is they can reduce them down to zero, because they will sense whether it is another vehicle, pedestrians, all that it can sense, and make sure that it stops and doesn't hit another vehicle [or] another individual," Thompson said.

Thompson said some newer cars already have dynamic cruise control that automatically slows down the vehicle when it gets close to another one, as well as programming that helps vehicles stay in their lane.

Noyce acknowledges that the autonomous vehicle experiment comes as Milwaukee and other cities are dealing with an upsurge in reckless driving. He said the vehicles can operate like drivers ideally should be driving.

"That they don't speed, they don't do [reckless] things, and that's where we hope to get the system to," Noyce said. With help from the new experiment in Racine.

Chuck Quirmbach joined WUWM in August 2018. He focuses his longform stories on health, innovation, science, technology, transportation, utilities and business.
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