Proving grounds are often used to test a new technology or products. It is natural in the Midwest, where the auto industry has long relied on test tracks to test automobile safety and performance, that these same sites are being used to test driverless vehicles. Every state in the Midwest has taken notice of the momentum growing in driverless vehicle technologies and several projects are underway in the region, including three of the 10 sites designated by the U.S. Department of Transportation (US DOT) as proving grounds.

The US DOT Proving Ground Designation

In January, the US DOT designated 10 proving ground pilot sites to encourage testing and information sharing around automated vehicle technologies. Former U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx expressed the department’s desire that the designees work together to share best practices and to help accelerate learning around automated vehicles as well as to promote their safe deployment.

“It’s been a wonderful designation,” said Peter Rafferty, Program Manager of one of the designated sites, the Wisconsin AV Proving Grounds in the College of Engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “It gets us a seat at the table with these other proving grounds and collaborating about the hard questions we should be asking around autonomous vehicles.”

The 10 proving ground designees are:

  1. City of Pittsburgh and the Thomas D. Larson Pennsylvania Transportation Institute
  2. Texas AV Proving Grounds Partnership
  3. U.S. Army Aberdeen Test Center
  4. American Center for Mobility (ACM) at Willow Run
  5. Contra Costa Transportation Authority (CCTA) & GoMentum Station
  6. San Diego Association of Governments
  7. Iowa City Area Development Group
  8. University of Wisconsin-Madison
  9. Central Florida Automated Vehicle Partners
  10. North Carolina Turnpike Authority


Autonomous vehicles fall along a continuum on a scale from Level 0 (no automation) to Level 5 (full automation). At this time, there are vehicles in use up to Level 4, which are currently restricted to certain areas. Level 5 is predicted to be years away.
For more info, visit the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration website:

Connected vehicle technology involves transportation infrastructure with sensors and software that makes information available to vehicles via wireless communication. While separate, AV and CVT are related because CVT can be used to augment AV functionality.
For more info, visit the US DOT website:

“The proving grounds vary,” said Rafferty. “Some are solely a test track. Others, like us in the College of Engineering, are more distributed with multiple facilities or with a variety of things they’re working on.”

The US DOT uses the six levels of automation for on-road motor vehicles from the engineering professionals’ association and standards developer, SAE International. These go from Level 0, defined as no automation to Level 5, defined as full automation. Image source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The Expanding Definition of Transportation

Several disciplines are brought into the development of driverless cars. This multidisciplinary nature means that people from outside the traditional purview of Transportation are now defining the Transportation field.

For example, a lot of autonomous vehicle (AV) development is being pushed by technology companies like Apple and Alphabet subsidiary, Waymo. It might be argued that these companies are doing even more to advance AV than the traditional automobile manufacturers.

In addition to the traditional disciplines of Civil Engineering and Planning, autonomous vehicle technology draws on expertise in electrical engineering, software engineering, big data, cybersecurity, environmental science, economics, human factors, policy making, and more.

Projects Across the Midwest

Every state in the Midwest Transportation Workforce Center’s region is taking note of driverless vehicle technology. Following is a brief survey of activities in this area for each state.


Is one of the 21 states that have passed legislation related to autonomous vehicles according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Illinois continues to have an active interagency work group working on regulatory and technical challenges with AV deployment.


Prūv Mobility Ecosystem, based in Columbus, Ohio, has entered into an agreement with Purdue Research Foundation to build a state-of-the-art research facility, test track and proving grounds for driverless vehicles. The 517-acre facility will be built adjacent to Purdue University’s main campus in West Lafayette, Indiana. The facility is designed to meet a need for more testing facilities, labs, proving grounds, test tracks and test-bed facilities with other transportation and mobility companies that need to test their innovations and technologies.


Another designee of the US DOT Automated Vehicle Proving Ground program, the University of Iowa’s National Advanced Driving Simulator and the Corridor hope to establish the region as a community of practice for this new technology. The team is building out a virtual proving grounds within their simulation environment.

Previously, in 2016, the Iowa Department of Transportation entered into a roughly $2 million agreement with the digital mapping company, HERE, to perform digital high definition mapping of Interstate 380 between Iowa City and Cedar Rapids as part of a multiphase effort to begin preparing for autonomous vehicle technology.


The American Center for Mobility at Willow Run was designated as one of the sites of the US DOT Automated Vehicle Proving Ground program. The center will work to lead the safe deployment of automated technologies and vehicles through testing, education and product development for connected and automated vehicles.

Located on 530-plus acres at the Willow Run site, the Center will be a purpose-built facility designed for testing, education and product development, to enable safe validation and self-certification of CAV technology, and to accelerate the development of voluntary standards.

Michigan is also one of the 21 states that have passed legislation related to autonomous vehicles according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.


In February 2017, the first phase of a pilot project to bring autonomous buses to Minnesota was begun. In the first phase, the group worked to solicit technology partners to safely demonstrate how AV technology works in cold and snowy weather. Phase 2 includes a controlled demonstration at MnROAD, Minnesota Department of Transportation’s pavement test track facility. After a successful test at MnROAD, a live pilot is planned during the week of the 2018 Super Bowl.
The project is focusing on developing buses because currently there is little research being done with transit buses, an important need for the Twin Cities and the state.

Missouri and Kansas

In September, the Missouri Department of Transportation surveyed the state seeking citizen input on driverless cars and long-term priorities for the agency. Missouri is also home to the I-70 Road to Tomorrow corridor for AV testing.
Additionally, startup company, Integrated Roadways, is working in Kansas City to pilot a project to make the city ready for driverless cars. The plan includes embedding sensors in the city’s roads. In addition to collecting information regarding road use, speed, and vehicle weight, the technology could have applications in the navigation and communication of self-driving cars.


Ohio has multiple projects and facilities with relevance to automated and connected vehicle technology.

  • Originally built in 1962 by the The Ohio State University, the Transportation Research Center is continuing to grow. Recent investments include an initial $45 million investment from the state and The Ohio State University for an expansion of the center’s 540-acre SMART Center, a state-of-the-art hub for autonomous and connected vehicle research.
  • The state is investing $15 million in a Smart Mobility Corridor, a stretch of U.S. 33 between Dublin and East Liberty being lined with fiber optic cable that can collect data on autonomous and connected vehicles. The Ohio Turnpike between Youngstown and Toledo is also expected to become a testing ground for similar research, and the latest state budget includes funding for additional smart highway projects on I-270 in Columbus and I-90 in northeast Ohio.
  • The city of Columbus competed with more than 70 other cities across the U.S., winning the Smart City Challenge in 2016. The project, which is intended to turn Columbus into a testing ground for transportation technology, drew an initial investment of $50 million, including a $40 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation and an additional $10 million from Vulcan Inc. The city will also match that initial investment with more than $360 million in pledges from public and private sector partners, according to information from the city.


As a designee of the US DOT Automated Vehicle Proving Ground program, the College of Engineering in Madison, Wisconsin is exploring a variety of research angles. Their exploration encompasses research in everything from high-definition mapping to closed test track testing to real-world applications. They also will work to help guide policy decision making around this area.

“We are also having conversations with Chippewa Valley Airport because they have a similar designation from the FAA for researching automated ground equipment for use at airports,” said Rafferty.

Wisconsin is also one of five states whose governors have issued executive orders related to autonomous vehicles according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.