The Automated Vehicles Symposium from a Work Zone Perspective


The Work Zone ITS Blog attended the Automated Vehicles Symposium in San Francisco July 20th. We came away with a very positive impression of the state of this practice. In previous posts we have expressed a concern that autonomous vehicle (AV) design must take work zones into consideration early in the process. That now appears to be the case. Work zones were mentioned in many of the plenary sessions along with the need for their systems to operate safely within them.

Breakout Session #20 – “Physical Infrastructure, Work Zones, and Digital Infrastructure” discussed this issue in more detail. Ross Sheckler of iCone explained the special problems inherent in work zones. We will get into his presentation in more detail in a future post, but he opened a lot of eyes. Audience members were asking questions, taking abundant notes, and were otherwise very engaged in the topic.

This means, of course, that we have their attention. It is good that we as the work zone industry have gotten involved. Now we need to make the most of it by making ourselves heard in this and other AV events.

As you may be aware, there is still a lively debate over two topics: 1) DSRC versus 5G communications, and 2) Whether automakers should include level 2 automation in production vehicles. Both of these topics are important to the work zone industry.

Let’s start with the communications issue. 4G is the digital wireless network you already use for your smart phone.  This is what we use today to control message signs and to upload portable sensor data.  A faster version known as 5G is rolling out in many areas. DSRC or Dedicated Short Range Communications is a radio spectrum (5.8 ghz) set aside, at least for now, for the exclusive use of the transportation industry. DSRC is faster and doesn’t have the latency problems associated with 4G. Vehicle to vehicle warnings occur instantly so if a car tells the one behind it that it is about to stop, the one following will get that warning soon enough to stop safely as well.

For most work zone applications 4G/5G works just fine. So manufacturers will likely stick with that. But if DSRC becomes more popular changes to our systems may become necessary. Work zone system designers should take this into consideration.

Level 2 automation is more of a problem. It is a suite of systems including adaptive cruise control, lane keeping, etc. that allows drivers to relinquish control for a period of time, say as they are driving on a freeway from one town to another.

The Tesla driver killed recently was using level 2 automation. He died when his car ran under a big rig turning in front of him. But he could as easily have run through a work zone. So this stage in automation must relinquish control automatically when approaching work zones. And it must do so early enough for the driver to take control and drive for enough time to regain his or her situational awareness. Human factors studies are just beginning to look at this, but it is clear this may take a minute or two. So on freeways, control would have to switch to the human driver at least two miles prior to the work zone.

How this will be accomplished is not yet clear. If all work zones are logged in real time into a central database such as a travel time system, it could be used to toggle control. Or perhaps a device mounted in the first message sign (normally located a couple of miles upstream of the work zone) could do the same thing.

These are all important and must be settled before AV technology can become mainstream. Events like the Autonomous Vehicle Summit will help move these conversations forward. So get involved and ensure that work zones are part of the discussion.

One thought on “The Automated Vehicles Symposium from a Work Zone Perspective

  1. Nice blog Joe, sounds more encouraging each blog.

    Best regards – Marty
    Martin Weed, State Work Zone Engineer
    360.705.7293(desk) | 360.237.4277 (cell)

    Washington State Department of Transportation Maintenance & Operations Division
    310 Maple Park Avenue SE | PO Box 47344
    Olympia, WA 98504-7344
    Work Zone Safety

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