National Dialogue on Highway Automation

Being the work zone data nerds that we are, we attended the National Dialogue on Highway Automation Workshop #2: Digital Infrastructure and Data held August 1st and 2nd in Seattle. The first workshop covered planning and policy. Workshop #3 focuses on freight. #4 is Operations and is held at the same time as the National Rural ITS meeting in Phoenix. The final workshop will be held late this year in Austin and will be more technical in nature as it covers infrastructure design and safety.

Each workshop includes a series of presentations followed by breakout groups where ideas are discussed and then shared with the larger group. The format works well and benefits from the input of a wide range of stakeholders.

You will be happy to hear that work zones came up early and often. In fact the opening comments used work zones as an example of the need for some sort of standardization as every agency now provides varying amounts of data, different types of data, different formats and a very wide range of detail. Another speaker called work zones the “low hanging fruit” for highway automation in general and data collection and dissemination in particular.

There were about 200 in attendance and maybe 30 raised their hands when asked who attended the Automated Vehicle Symposium last month in San Francisco. So, this was an almost entirely new group.

You should also know the FHWA is seriously committed to this process. They had 20 or 30 of their own people at this event running it, moderating the breakout sessions, and asking lots of questions.

There were a number of themes that jumped out at us. One was data quality and verification. The consensus was that state DOTs will probably have the responsibility of verifying data accuracy. But what that process might be is unclear. It will likely vary by data type. In our case it will probably come as a quality check after it is already posted. Work zone activity must be reported in real time to be actionable, so they will weed the inaccurate reports (and reporters) out after the fact.

Remarkably most in the room were well acquainted with the MUTCD. Multiple comments suggested that it needs to be revised to recognize automated vehicles. Some even suggested reducing the leeway states have in specifying sign formats, pavement marking details, etc. to create more consistent traffic control for CAVs. But later others pointed out this is unlikely to happen and the effort would be better spent doing this outside the MUTCD process, at least to begin with.

These two days were time well spent. If you are able, we strongly encourage you to participate in one of their future workshops, especially the event in Phoenix. It will be focused on traffic operations. But because it will be held in conjunction with the NRITS show, it will also spend more time on automated vehicles and rural roads.  Learn more HERE.

News from the Automated Vehicles Symposium

We just returned from the Automated Vehicle Symposium held annually in San Francisco. It has always been a wonderful venue for the exchange of ideas and concerns about automated vehicles. This year work zones and roadway safety infrastructure continue to make progress in the AV world. In fact, it is remarkable how the conversation has changed in a few short years. Three years ago, we told the automakers what they needed to understand about work zones. It was a major epiphany for them. Last year we offered a way to report work zones in real time. This year the discussion focused on the tools available and how best to use them.

Breakout Session # 32 titled “OEM/DOT Dialog on Dedicated Lanes, Work Zones, and Shared Data” was broken into those three topics. They were all worthwhile but in the interest of time we will focus on the work zone portion here. The focus of the session was real-time reporting of work zones to automated vehicles and digital maps.

Ross Sheckler of iCone started off by describing the tools that will make work zone reporting automatic and accurate – both in terms of location and time.

Paul Pisano of FHWA discussed the connected work zone grant. They are evaluating in-car traffic information. The study runs from May 2017 to March 2019. One of the desired outcomes of the study is to standardize work zone data elements. Every state, every practitioner, etc. has their own list and they have started the discussion of what should be on that list and how it should be formatted so that everyone can report things like work zones in the same way.

They plan to do this in two states: what they called a low-fidelity version and a high-fidelity version. The Low fidelity version will come first and includes the simplest of elements: GPS location, start and end dates, and some description of the work zone such as “right lane closed”. The later, high fidelity version will include detailed lane level mapping and much more.

Bob Brydia of TTI discussed his work with connected work zones on I-35 between Austin and Dallas. He collected data on each and every lane closure – 1,000s of them over the past few years. Each recorded lane closure included 60 fields to describe each closure. That’s a lot! But OEMs have told him they want much, much more!

In a related topic it was pointed out that in the recent federal RFI on connected vehicles, two different US automaker trade associations said they want a universal work zone database! So, we all see the need. Its just a matter of deciding what it should include, as Paul described earlier.

Bob Brydia says they currently send work zone data out as traffic info to help drivers. But eventually this will become more of a traffic operations function. CAVs will use this info to automatically reduce delays and speed travel times.

It was a great session, as always, and we look forward to more dramatic progress next year.

 

The State of the Work Zone ITS Industry – 2018

We just enjoyed the 4th of July holiday. As we sat on the deck consuming bar-b-que and adult beverages we considered the state of the work zone ITS industry. We really have come a long way in the past year and that deserves recognition and a quick look back.

One of the most important and most overlooked recent changes is the blurring of the lines between the permanent ITS infrastructure world and the work zone ITS world. At last month’s ITS America show in Detroit, HERE demonstrated their new ability to incorporate live data feeds from work zones along with their partners including software provider GEWI and work zone ITS supplier iCone.

Waze is also incorporating real-time work zone data feeds in their traffic reporting. Both traffic data providers understand the importance of immediate and accurate work zone reporting and are working internally to make better use of our data.

This blurring is going the other direction as well, as Work Area Protection (formerly ASTI Transportation) now offers the option of including Iteris probe data in work zone travel and delay time calculations.

This blurring of the lines may be more important than we realize. Because it becomes less about us versus them for funding and more about an ITS system that works all of the time – especially in work zones. Work zones have always been an afterthought with ITS practitioners. But that is changing. They now understand that the single largest cause of nonrecurring congestion is work zones. And they are working to address that with their permanent systems.

In a recent article in Better Roads Magazine Frank Zucco of Wanco explained that work zone ITS is now much less expensive. Large, elaborate systems are still available and make sense for multi-year projects with major traffic impacts. But more and more simple systems are now being used for queue detection, trucks entering and dynamic merge applications. And, as Frank points out, those are now very dependable and inexpensive, making them a cost-effective solution for most projects.

Research now validates what we all knew intuitively. Queue detection, in particular, has shown major benefits according to the Texas Transportation Institute and AASHTO. We touched on this milestone two years ago in our post “The State of the Work Zone ITS Industry” published on 4/28/16.

And, lastly, work zone ITS helps facilitate the proliferation of automated and autonomous vehicles. Without real time reporting of work zones, AVs are left to navigate them on their own. And the AV world now understands that. We have become a part of the conversation. At the Automated Vehicle Symposium later this month in San Francisco sessions about work zones will be included for the third year in a row. See #33: “OEM/DOT Dialog on Dedicated Lanes, Work Zones and Shared Data” on July 11th. Autonomous vehicles are a big story that will only get bigger. Funding and research will flow to our industry as a result of these conversations.

As an industry, we aren’t yet to the point where our systems are used everywhere they could help. But we can finally see that light at the end of the tunnel.

FHWA’s National Dialogue on Highway Automation

Many thanks to Brian Watson of the American Traffic Safety Services Association for his recent email regarding the FHWA’s efforts to get road users involved in a discussion of the impacts and issues surrounding automated and autonomous vehicles. This is an important opportunity for those of us in work zone ITS to get involved. For that reason we have reprinted his email here:

I recently attended a webinar on the FHWA’s National Dialogue on Highway Automation. I have attached the link to the recorded session, and a background on the FHWA program below. Please note the five automation focus areas include many of the aspects of our industry. If you have any questions, or would like to get involved please let me know. The next meeting will take place in Detroit at ITS America in two weeks.

https://ops.fhwa.dot.gov/automationdialogue/index.htm

Background

Automated vehicles have the potential to significantly transform the nation’s roadways. They offer potential benefits in safety but also introduce uncertainty for the agencies responsible for the planning, design, construction, operation, and maintenance of the roadway infrastructure. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) is initiating a national conversation with partners and stakeholders to better understand the implications of highway automation to facilitate innovation and inform the Agency’s role in this area. This National Dialogue on Highway Automation represents a series of meetings held across the country to facilitate information sharing, identify key issues and prepare the infrastructure and the broader transportation community to safely and efficiently integrate automated vehicles into the road network. Input received during the National Dialogue will help inform national research, policy, and programs and will aid in the development of a national transportation community for automation.

This National Dialogue will engage an expanded set of stakeholders, beyond FHWA’s typical stakeholders, in order to ensure that this issue has broad input. These stakeholders will include but is not limited to original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), technology suppliers, transportation network companies (TNCs), associations, and public-sector partners.

The meetings will be held in different locations across the country, running from June 2018 through the end of 2018. These meetings will be conducted as 1 to 1.5 day events and generally include 100 to 150 participants. These meetings are meant to gather input and information from stakeholders and will include significant interactive components, such as breakout discussions and listening sessions.

Automation Focus Areas

  1. Planning and Policy: This focus area will explore relevant issues for the planning and policy community, such as travel demand changes from automation, land use implications, infrastructure funding, right of way use, transportation systems management and operations, automation legislation/policy and other topics.
  2. Digital Infrastructure and Data: This focus area will center on the data requirements and needs of automated vehicles (e.g., digital work zone maps, road closures, etc.). It will explore the possibility of developing new partnerships and collaboration between public agencies and industry for data sharing and safety.
  3. Freight: This focus area will deal with truck platooning applications and automated truck freight delivery issues. It will cover possible implications on traffic patterns and operations, as well as potential infrastructure considerations.
  4. Operations: This focus area will survey the range of operations challenges from highway automation and initiate a discussion on what further research is necessary to address them. These challenges may include incident management and system inefficiency which may have implications on traffic patterns and roadway capacity.
  5. Multimodal Safety and Infrastructure Design: This focus area will cover infrastructure requirements, standardization, and consistency for automation. It will highlight topics where automation technology developers and public agencies need collaboration to plan for locations where existing roadway infrastructure, road conditions, design features and environments could lead to potential safety hazards.

Autonomous Navigation Challenges, Part 2

In our last post we looked at the current state of the art in autonomous vehicle navigation. Another way in which the problem of navigation in unmapped or incorrectly mapped areas will be overcome is through artificial intelligence. We looked at the potential of this technology in our 4/10/17 post entitled, “Machine Learning and Work Zones”. Michael Reser published an article May 8th in Electronic Design entitled, “How AI Will Help Pave the Way to Autonomous Driving”.

Mr. Reser’s main point is that given the unfathomable quantity of data that must be digested and acted upon by autonomous vehicles (AVs) the technology will progress much faster and more accurately through machine learning. “Translating it all into a real-world challenge for AI-backed autonomous-driving systems, the expected outcome of such massive data processing is nothing short of getting the right answer in the shortest possible time to determine a proper action to avoid a traffic incident.”

“To put it differently, (a) large set of data in combination with realistic scenarios and nonlinear parameter sets enables systems and applications to fail safely and learn faster.”

He goes on to list the many challenges that must also be addressed including how to tie images from multiple sensors with varying resolution quality into one accurate picture. Another was how to validate and tie different data sources together in time. They must have a consistent way of labeling those sources in time.

Mr. Reser goes on to say they are not there yet, but he sees the process as inevitable.

“For true enablement of Level 4 and Level 5 automated driving, the system should be functional in all weather and driving conditions, which is obviously a given requirement. Still, it’s a much bigger challenge than sometimes mentioned and admitted”.

Like most AV challenges, this one has serious implications for work zones. It will be interesting to watch as this process unfolds.

One View of the Current State of the Art in Autonomous Navigation

Much has been written about autonomous vehicles and their methods of navigation. But most of that writing is little more than science fiction. The systems described are usually just concepts that engineers are working toward. What is the current state of the art?

Dyllan Furness posted May 9th about emerging technology in Digital Trends magazine His article, titled “Get lost: MIT’s self-driving car takes on unmarked roads” examined the current capabilities of autonomous vehicles. He found that current AVs are only able to drive on well-mapped city streets. This deficiency would affect autonomous vehicles ability to navigate a work zone as well. As he wrote in his opening lines, “If you find yourself on a country road in a self-driving car, chances are you’re both pretty lost. Today’s most advanced autonomous driving systems rely on maps that have been carefully detailed and characterized in advanced. That means the millions of miles of unpaved roads in the United States are effectively off-limits for autonomous vehicles.”

MIT is working to change that by developing a method of navigating using simple GPS, Google map data and a variety of sensors. ““We were realizing how limited today’s self-driving cars are in terms of where they can actually drive,” Teddy Ort, an MIT CSAIL graduate student who worked on the project, told Digital Trends. “Companies like Google only test in big cities where they’ve labeled the exact positions of things like lanes and stop signs. These same cars wouldn’t have success on roads that are unpaved, unlit, or unreliably marked. This is a problem.””

Certainly, work zones fall into this problem area. And MIT’s new system could address our issues, as well. In particular, by using Google map data this system would also pick up near real-time work zone data like we described in our 9/25/17 post. Then the sensors could identify traffic control devices and follow them safely through the work zone.

It is good to see that at least one organization understands the limits of current technology and is looking for a better, safer way for autonomous vehicles to find their way through rural roads and work zones.

Work Zone Traffic Control “Down-Under”

We just returned from a wonderful trip to Australia where we spoke to the Traffic Management Association of Australia (TMAA) about work zone ITS. Their members were all excited and focused on finding safer, more efficient ways to manage their work zones.

The program was packed full of interesting speakers and a variety of timely topics. They also gave us all just the right amount of time to discuss those topics between sessions. It was very well run.

The attendees seemed to enjoy talking to Americans and all asked what we thought of the meeting. My first answer was always the same: traffic control companies in both countries share the exact same set of problems:

1) Speeding in work zones.

2) End-of-queue crashes.

3) Hiring, training and retaining good employees.

4) A perception by the driving public that we are there to make their lives miserable.

5) Insufficient funding for maintenance and construction.

6) Changing standards and levels of enforcement from one state to the next.

7) Varying commitment and funding levels from one state to the next.

Just like ATSSA, the TMAA brings contractors, manufacturers, academia and government agencies together to discuss these problems and identify solutions. The TMAA does an especially good job of this. We look forward to learning more from them in the years to come!