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Digital mapping firm Here wants to transform Iowa highway into a self-driving utopia

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Here, the mapping business, announced today that it was teaming up with Iowa’s Department of Transportation to transform a nearly 30-mile stretch of Interstate-380 into a special corridor for self-driving cars and trucks.

Here says it will use its open location platform, which includes real-time and predictive traffic maps, to help Iowa transportation officials develop ways for self-driving vehicles to better communicate with the infrastructure and other vehicles. The firm did not disclose the total cost of the project.

The plan is for Here and Iowa’s transportation department to retrofit I-380 between Iowa City and Cedar Rapids to better handle the expected onslaught of automated and connected vehicles, especially freight vehicles. It’s the kind of infrastructure upgrades that many experts believe will be needed across the country in order to enable self-driving vehicles to reach their full potential. Through a network of cameras and sensors attached to or embedded in permanent fixtures like traffic signs and streetlights, experts believe self-driving cars can a much better job communicating with their surroundings and other vehicles.

Google, Uber, and other companies that own fleets of self-driving cars have been testing their technology in real-world urban settings in cities like San Francisco, Austin, and Pittsburgh. But Here’s deal with the state of Iowa could be the first to explore the possibilities of autonomous freight haulers on highways. (The company recently started working with Colorado’s DOT to make I-70 safer, but without applications for self-driving vehicles.) Uber recently acquired self-driving trucking firm Otto with the intention of building up a fleet of driverless tractor trailers, but has yet to announce any concrete plans.

In many ways, freight could be the perfect way to evaluate the commercial application of self-driving technology. Freight lines are highly scrutinized, with rigorous timetables and close monitoring of goods and human drivers. This baseline data could be highly useful in the context of a self-driving pilot program.

Here and its partners in Iowa’s state government believe the deal could help goods move across the state more efficiently. “Iowa is a producer state,” said Iowa DOT Director Paul Trombino III in a statement. “Many of our goods leave our borders, making our transportation infrastructure the lifeblood of our economy. We are focused on leveraging advanced technology to create a more efficient and safe road network for intermodal mobility and increased economic development opportunities.”

Since its $3.1 billion acquisition from Nokia by BMW, Audi, and Mercedes' parent company Daimler in 2015, Here has generated a lot of interest from some big players in the tech world. Last April, both Amazon and Microsoft expressed interest in providing cloud-computing capabilities for Here. This came a few months after the company announced plans to expand its global mapping efforts, including specific improvements to next-generation maps readable by self-driving cars.