Report from the Automated Vehicles Symposium, Part 2

In our last post we discussed the need recognized at the Automated Vehicle Symposium for varying levels of vehicle autonomy based on the road and current conditions. One of those conditions is clearly work zones. A car may be able to operate at Level 4 autonomy in freeway traffic, but may have difficulty ding the same in some work zones.

In those cases we must signal the vehicle to alert the driver to prepare to retake control. And that warning will have to be given leaving sufficient time for the driver to become cognizant of the dangers around his or her vehicle. A poster session at the AV Symposium by Chris Schwartz of the University of Iowa looked at that timing. Their study focused on large trucks and found drivers needed as much as 10 seconds to get their wits about them for normal driving. Work zones should probably allow a little more time, as drivers may have to start immediately to negotiate lane shifts, narrow lanes, or other challenges. So ideally this signal would come at about the first construction area sign (ROAD WORK AHEAD).

The conventional method would occur through the cars digital map. That will be how other hand-offs take place, such as when driving from a roadway capable of supporting level 4 automation to an older stretch only capable of supporting level 3. But those are points that rarely move or change. Work zones may only take place for a few days, or a few hours. As we have discussed in past posts, the map must be updated in real time for features like this to work correctly.

Manufacturers are working today on beacons, arrow boards, and more that will signal when lane closures begin and when they end. This is already happening today and will only become more popular as smart technology is accepted in more and more work zones.

But another option was mentioned in the same session. 3M is experimenting with a way of placing two-dimensional bar codes within their reflective sign sheeting. The bar codes are only readable by infrared cameras. Drivers would never see them. They would just see the static sign saying something like ROAD WORK AHEAD. But the car they are driving would be triggered to return control to the driver.

This technology is in the very early stages of testing. 3M has signs up on freeways in Michigan now and hopes to test more of them in the Bay Area of California soon. It is too early to say this is a solution but it does show promise. A combination of map triggers and these signs would provide some redundancy and might also be a simpler way of notifying drivers of very short term work zones such as those installed by utility companies and smaller agencies.

The good news is that both the traffic control industry and the AV industry recognize the importance of this hand-off prior to work zones and they are working to find solutions.

Report from the Automated Vehicles Symposium

The annual Automated Vehicles Symposium was held again this week in San Francisco. Attendance continues to grow in this TRB sponsored event, topping more than 1500 manufacturers, academics, and other practitioners.

Breakout Session #18 was titled, “Reading the Road Ahead: Infrastructure Readiness.” As the name implies, this session focused on our roads and what must be done to prepare them for autonomous vehicles.

The first section looked at the State of Machine Vision Systems. Both speakers: Jaap Vreeswijk of MAP Traffic Management and Tom Alkim of the Dutch Road Authority talked about results in Europe. They both pointed out road conditions vary from facility to facility and even from one section to another. And for that reason they suggested that a system should be developed to tell drivers what level of automation is supported as conditions change.

This would also apply to temporary changes such as work zones. As autonomous vehicles approach a work zone the driver would be told to take control as a work zone is just ahead. Once through the work zone, the driver could return control to the vehicle so long as that road segment supported it.

The actual mechanics for this process was not discussed. Digital maps could notify us of upcoming changes in the roadway requiring more or less human control. But it could only do so for work zones under 2 possible scenarios: 1) if a local device was placed in advance of the work zone to send out a signal to approaching traffic, or 2) if maps are continuously updated with real-time information…in other words if they have perfect knowledge of all work zones.

That was the subject discussed later in a session developed by Ross Sheckler of iCone. I was asked to deliver that presentation and it was well received. Ross pointed out both the need to place work zones on the digital map, and the fact it can be done today. We are already sharing real time work zone locations and related data with services including Waze and HERE. But we could do so much more if we can just get more sensors out into devices like arrow boards or flagger paddles.

Once we have enough of these in service, motorists and traffic management centers will both come to depend on this accurate, real-time data. And safety will be much improved when even utility workers appear automatically on the map when they turn on their flashing lights.