The Future of Work Zones and Automated Vehicles

Today I have asked Ross Sheckler of iCone Products to discuss his thoughts about the future interaction of automated and autonomous vehicles and work zones.

rossWZITS: Ross, there is a lot of discussion lately about automated and autonomous vehicles and how they will negotiate work zones and other temporary changes to the road geometry. What are you most concerned about with this technology?

RS: I think a there is a lot to learn about the road if you can step into another person’s shoes and view it from their perspective. The general public has used the commercial navigation systems and has come to expect that the road they’re looking for is on the digital map. More technical users generally recognize that the precision of most digital maps needs to be increased in order to navigate a car down a particular lane. There is a lot of focus on increasing both the accuracy and precision of these digital maps.

WZITS: Automation, they say, will greatly reduce crashes and improve safety on our roadways. Are there any positives for the work zone and incident management worlds?

RS: I think that automated cars that share a network of information with other cars can be a very positive thing for both work zones and evacuations. On some of our jobs we work hard to get ten or fifteen percent of the drivers to choose a different route because it improves everyone’s mobility and safety. The problem is that people tend to resist the unknown of a different route, this is particularly true for commercial truck drivers. You never know if you are going to get stuck some place you don’t want to be. The magical thing about automation, even just good navigation devices, is that people have come to trust them implicitly.

Imagine a hurricane evacuation scenario where a city like Miami is being evacuated. The state of Florida has specific evacuation routes all planned out but I doubt many of the residents know the route from their home let alone the route from some other part of the city. Navigation devices should have all of these routes coded in and be able to navigate you from wherever you are to safety. If those same devices could use real-time closure data the vehicles on a route that has been blocked by construction or an accident could be redistributed to updated evacuation routes based on their precise location.

The same should be true for blockages or slow-downs based on work zones. The catch is there needs to be a lot more data than we currently have.

WZITS: Automation is a catch phrase that includes a wide variety of technologies. Would you like to venture a guess as to the ones that will be used by the vast majority of car companies?

RS: I would like to think that cruise controls for traffic jams and smarter dynamic routing systems will be the first automation that will be widely adopted.

Taking the stress and risk out of stop-and-go traffic is going to be a big help for safety and mobility.

Having more information on activities such as construction and flagging will support smarter routing algorithms. I would like to think that our cars will direct us away from workers and backups in a way that gives us confidence that we are taking the best route.

WZITS: How will that impact the future of the roadway safety infrastructure industry?

RS: I think we can get to a world where as workers arrive to set up a work zone, no matter how small, their presence is noted in the national databases and cars automatically take other routes if they can. If we can get twenty or thirty percent of vehicles to divert around places where workers are present I would be willing to bet we will prevent a disproportionate number of accidents both to workers and travelers.

Google Presentation at ITS California


ITS California was held September 20 to 23 in Los Angeles. It was the best attended show in our history and many good ideas were exchanged. But the highlight for me was Tuesday’s lunch keynote speaker, Dmitri Dolgov. He is Google’s principal engineer and leads the software team for their autonomous vehicle project.

During his presentation it quickly became apparent that their approach to this challenge has broadened significantly. Their early efforts approached navigation solely through GPS and mapping. And that is still their primary focus. But they are now beginning to take a more holistic approach, including V2V and V2I as part of their efforts.

His said that DSRC deployment takes time. And they don’t want to wait for the population of transmitters to hit some critical mass before Google starts to work on this. There is plenty to do now using GPS and mapping.

Even with this narrower approach, they use pavement markings and signs to help orient the vehicle. The process starts with GPS but that only gets you to a point near your actual location. That is then compared to their maps to narrow it down further. Finally they look at the infrastructure to learn precisely where the vehicle is located.

Greg Larson of Caltrans’ Division of Research & Innovation asked a question we discussed here in July ( How will Google handle those situations where the vehicle is faced with an unavoidable crash and must choose between something like running into a wall or over children on the sidewalk? Mr. Dolgov answered that they are unwilling to stipulate that those crashes are unavoidable. He firmly believes they will reach the point where those crashes are preventable. The key is getting drivers out of the equation. Once there are enough of these autonomous vehicles on the road, driver error and most if not all crashes, will be eliminated.

Many in the audience asked about work zones and other changing conditions. First, I found it great that the industry now realizes this is a problem. Mr. Dolgov claimed their system now recognizes a lane closure and attempts to merge into the open lane right away. It even tells other autonomous vehicles in the area so they can plan to do the same.

The Google system is learning to recognize flagger and law enforcement hand signals as well. You must assume this will make it even more important to perform those signals in a standard and recognizable manner.

He went on to say that even when something completely random occurs, the vehicle slows or stops, until it finds a way to drive safely around it. He said they have a simulator they use to test his software. He mentioned an example where the car happened upon a woman in a wheelchair in the middle of the road chasing a chicken with a broomstick. Now that is random! I am not sure how most of us would react to that. But the car came to a stop until she moved out of the road.

I left the session thinking work zones won’t be as much of a problem as we all once thought. If anything, these vehicles may be the best behaved we face while working in traffic. And the good news is that quality standards for our devices and workers will become even more important once machines are depending on them.