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Photo of the Badger autonomous shuttle
January 24, 2022

Collaboration drives advances in AV understanding

Written By: Alex Holloway

The city of Racine, Wisconsin, has a new shuttle that doesn’t necessarily need a driver.

Dubbed the “Badger,” the new shuttle is a flashy example of technological advances that have led to the emergence of autonomous vehicles—capable of driving themselves—over the past decade. It is also both the culmination of and a new starting point for years of research for the Traffic Operations and Safety (TOPS) Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Steven Parker, the lab’s managing director, says faculty and staff who work in the TOPS Lab have researched connected and autonomous vehicles from various perspectives for years. Those years of work have led to the Badger, which is the first application of autonomous driving at the municipal level in Wisconsin.

The Badger, which was built by Perrone Robotics in Virginia, is a smart vehicle capable of both predefined route-mapping and real-time environmental sensing to make adjustments as it drives. It’s equipped with lidar sensors that researchers can use to recreate a point-by-point image of what the vehicle “sees” while traveling the roadways, in addition to traditional cameras for more human-ready imaging.

It’s a Level 4 autonomous vehicle, which is the second-highest ranking on SAE International’s J3016 six-level scale for vehicle automation. The scale runs from Level 0, which means a vehicle has no automated features at all, to fully autonomous vehicles at Level 5. A Level 4 vehicle like the Badger has a high degree of driving automation features, but should still have a human driver ready to take over in certain circumstances.

“Any time we take it out, there will be a TOPS Lab researcher in the vehicle ready to disengage, which means they can hit a button and take full control of the vehicle,” Parker says. “In these autonomous vehicles, the safe driver is still a very active role. It requires a lot of attention—especially because in this case, everything we do will affect how the public perceives this.”

The Badger’s software also maintains a running log of every event that happens while it’s driving, and Parker says TOPS Lab researchers will review that information to inform safety decisions for it and even future vehicles.

“Our first priority is to develop safe operating procedures for this vehicle,” Parker says. “So the first step is to set up experiments and understand from the data this car provides what its limitations are and how it can operate safely. We want to understand, for example, how it might operate in winter conditions, with snow, rain or wind coming off Lake Michigan. We’ll start testing it in small areas, but eventually want to move to more public-facing demonstrations.”

Autonomous vehicles are no strangers to controversies that may adversely impact the public’s perception of their safety. Tesla vehicles equipped with a self-driving autopilot mode, for example, have been involved in enough high-profile crashes that they’ve caught the attention of the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The Badger, however, will generally operate at less than 25 miles per hour and won’t be traveling on highways—and, says TOPS Lab Director David Noyce, public acceptance is key to adoption.

“Trust is a huge factor any time you introduce a new technology,” says Noyce, who is the Arthur F. Hawnn Professor in civil and environmental engineering at UW-Madison and executive associate dean of the College of Engineering. “There are multiple reasons reported for some of these Tesla crashes. Some appear to be gaps in sensor coverage or issues with the algorithm in the cars’ software. One of the first things we want to do with the Badger is understand its sensor range so we can better comprehend how the vehicle is searching for information. If there’s a semi that’s high off the ground, making it appear to the Badger that there’s a gap, we want to know how the vehicle is ‘thinking’ in that situation.”

The Badger project was born from a collaboration among the city of Racine, UW-Madison, Gateway Technical College and the Wisconsin Department of Transportation. Parker says it’s not unusual for such projects to be led at the municipal level, and the Badger—as the state’s first autonomous vehicle pilot program—will provide great opportunities for all stakeholders.

“This is a transformative technology, and that requires partnerships and collaboration,” Parker says. “The TOPS Lab excels at monitoring the vast amount of data that comes from this vehicle. Gateway expands that ability, and we can work with some of its students and capstone classes. Everyone has a role to play, and I see that UW-Madison will continue to be a leader in pushing forward on the research side of this. We’ll keep working with our partners to turn this research into practice and test these things in the real world.”

The Badger also touches on some of the TOPS Lab’s other research areas, including how cars interact with connected infrastructure on roadways. Though not presently a part of the project, the lab may in the future bring those two areas together, or add another automated car to the test. The TOPS Lab can also further partnerships with the College of Engineering’s researchers who study autonomous systems and robotics as they continue to explore advances in the Badger’s artificial intelligence systems.

“We’re taking the first step of changing transportation culture and what the future of transportation may look like in Wisconsin, the United States and, ultimately, the rest of the world,” says Noyce. “We’ll all learn together what the next steps look like.”


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