Jump Start Work Zone Intelligent Transportation Systems in Your State

screenshot-expo atssa com 2016-02-08 10-56-28

We just got back from ATSSA’s annual Traffic Expo held this year in New Orleans. The focus of this show, more than ever before, was innovation. There was a lot of talk about automated and autonomous vehicles. And there were two great workshops on work zone ITS. In particular, I moderated a session Monday morning entitled, “Jump Start Work Zone Intelligent Transportation Systems in Your State”.

It was very well attended, 15 state DOTs were represented along with several local agencies and contractors. The material presented was fresh, and a very lively discussion followed afterward. The workshop looked at new and innovative ways states are contracting for work zone ITS in general and queue warning systems in particular.

Jerry Ullman of TTI led off by talking about the Texas model for contracting for these systems directly with the system providers and outside of the normal project contracting process. Steve Kite of North Carolina DOT talked about his state’s plan for doing the same thing through something similar to a professional services contract.

Keith Roberts of Illinois DOT described what they have done to bid an on-demand contract in his district. They tried doing it in a couple of different but similar ways in two districts. It has been so successful that Illinois is now going state wide. Priscilla Tobias, the Illinois State Safety Engineer, has approved bidding on-demand queue warning systems for all 9 Illinois DOT districts.

The bid includes rental rates for sensors and portable changeable message signs by the day, week and month. This on-demand contract is intended to supply queue warning for projects where the traffic impacts are short term, or unexpected. It could also be used for major incidents. Large projects requiring queue warning already include these systems as a line item and won’t normally use the on-demand rentals.

The obvious advantage to this method is you only pay for the system when you need it. There is never a need to justify use of a queue warning system until the queues develop. And then you order the number of devices you need to address the problem. It really is a more economical use of funding.

Another less obvious advantage is the agency works directly with the system supplier. Communication is faster and more seamless. DOTs learn the system capabilities faster and more completely and make better use of them as a result.

Many other states are now going forward with their own on-demand contracts including Indiana, North Carolina, and Michigan. And given the number of states that attended this session, don’t be surprised if several more join them very soon.

On-demand queue warning has revolutionized work zone ITS. It makes it available when and where it is needed, not just on large projects where traffic impacts are anticipated. We all owe a large debt of gratitude to Jerry Ullman of the Texas Transportation Institute for pioneering this method and to Priscilla Tobias and Keith Roberts of Illinois DOT for perfecting it.

If you would like to learn more you can begin by downloading the Illinois District 9 specification Illinois spec.

Tesla Software Update Will Restrict Autopilot Use

Tesla recently announced changes to their autopilot feature. Apparently Tesla owners have been driving hands-free in what were described as “dangerous situations”. Their new software update will not allow the use of autopilot on residential streets or roads without a center divider. Of course, when I read the article my first thought was work zones. The entire Wall Street Journal article can be accessed here.

The offending Tesla owners were playing with the feature and showing off for friends and social media, taking and posting photos as the car drove itself down the road. Another set of drivers drove from Los Angeles to New York in less than 58 hours often cruising at 90 MPH and operated autonomously 96% of the time (see Wired article HERE).  Clearly these behaviors are inadvisable. But the same can be said when they pass through work zones where changing conditions, sudden stops or lane reductions, and narrow lanes and missing shoulders all make avoiding collisions much more difficult.

The automobile industry has sold this idea of graduated steps up in autonomy as a way of safely moving from full driver control to full vehicle control in small increments. The idea is that we will learn important lessons along the way. But one way that is already happening is drivers “testing” the technology. You have to see what it can do, right? Still, one would hope they won’t try this in work zones. But common sense is not always so common.

There are many potential dangers where automated/autonomous vehicles interact with work zones. We are beginning, as an industry, to discuss those. Sounds like we had better ask automakers to restrict autopilot use in work zones, as well.