Work Zones and Automated Vehicles

I recently watched a recording of GTMA’s webinar “Automated Vehicles and Traffic Maintenance Zones”. First I would like to thank Rob Dingess for hosting this and Jerry Ullman of TTI for leading the discussion. It was very well done. They managed to move the discussion forward two or three steps.

Until now, the work zone safety industry has been concerned with getting the autonomous and driver assisted vehicle industries to consider how best to accommodate work zones. Mr. Ullman took the discussion to the next phase. He began by discussing the different levels of vehicle automation (0 to 4 with 4 being full automation). He says there will be new and often different challenges regarding work zones at each level. He took those problems we have all predicted and organized them in a way that will be far more valuable to the automotive industry.

If you haven’t seen this webinar I suggest contacting Rob at the GTMA (rdingess@usgtma.com ). I won’t try to repeat what he and Jerry said. But I would like to touch on a few interesting points they made. Jerry said,

“there may be a need at Level 2 for a mechanism to disengage lane keeping and tracking upstream of the work zone”

That led me to thinking about the hand off from automated driving to manual control and the complexity of work zones. We don’t want to suddenly hand over control to the driver just as everything changes. I suspect most drivers need a little time to get re-acclimated to driving before we begin throwing confusing lane shifts or detours at them. For this reason, especially at Level 2, we should consider placing the trigger for the hand off well upstream, perhaps 4 or 5 miles when possible. If we do it last minute, drivers who suddenly find themselves in control will make more mistakes than they do today.

You may have already considered this, but it occurred to me that at some point in the future we will have vehicles on our roads at the same time with all five levels of automation. Older vehicles will still be driven manually (level 0). Google cars will be driving fully automated. And there will also be cars at levels 1 through 3. Our work zones must accommodate all of them safely and efficiently.

After the presentation Rob asked an interesting question,

“What will happen with traffic control plans? Will they be created and then communicated to vehicles?”

Jerry felt that traffic control plans can never be made precisely enough and in sufficient detail to be perfect when they are implemented. He says that information must come from the field. This is a very important distinction. The automated vehicle world, especially Google, imagines everything controlled by a central data base. They naturally assume work zones would be done the same way. But we all understand that no plan is ever perfect. It must be adapted to local conditions. For this reason he says this information will always have to come from the field. We will have to find some way of doing that while still providing some form of verification and oversight.

Thanks again to Rob Dingess and Jerry Ullman for this webinar. It really did move the conversation forward. We look forward to more good discussions from them very soon!

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