PennDOT to Test Autonomous Vehicles in Work Zones

Pennsylvania DOT recently won a $8.4 million dollar grant from FHWA to begin testing autonomous vehicles in work zones. The story by Ed Blazina ran last Wednesday in the Pittsburg Post-Gazette. And he shows a real understanding of the problem when he writes, “one driving circumstance that almost all of the companies have avoided so far is driving through work zones. That’s because those areas don’t provide the regular pattern self-driving vehicles thrive on and have out-of-the-norm items such as construction barrels and lane markings that aren’t as distinctive as on regular roads.”

The award was the largest of eight grants handed out by Secretary Chao to study the safety of autonomous vehicles. This is significant as it demonstrates recognition of the importance of work zone safety at the highest levels at DOT.

PennDOT doesn’t believe any one solution will solve the problem. So, they proposed to approach the problem from a variety of angles including, “detailed mapping systems, communications systems between work-zone equipment and self-driving vehicles, and coatings for barrels and road surfaces to help self-driving vehicles recognize conditions.”

The story made no mention of automated work zone reporting, but that may be part of the “communications…between work-zone equipment and self-driving vehicles.”

In their 25 page application PennDOT stated they will start with computer simulations then move to a closed track for the second phase of testing. Once their concepts are proven they will then test them out in real-world work zones.

They will be working with a nine member team including Carnegie Mellon and PPG Paints.

Work Zone Data Initiative Activity Update

The Work Zone Data Initiative (WZDI) was created to gather best practices, educate practitioners, and move everyone to more standardized methods of data collection and analysis for work zones. This has included the development of a data dictionary, standard data elements and formats, and much more. The FHWA Work Zone Management Program recently published their quarterly newsletter detailing the progress made in this area. Learn more HERE.

Download the Work Zone Activity Data Needs & Opportunities report HERE.

This report was produced by Jerry Ullman and Melisa Finley of TTI. It looks at the benefits we can expect from more consistent data collection. In particular, local and state agencies, private data consumers, and contractors will all be able to compare projects, work zone impact mitigation strategies, and work zone design to find the safest, most efficient methods in any given situation. The benefits will be significant.

But there are many challenges as well. Currently work zone data collection in inconsistent due both to varying practices from one agency to the next and to a lack of funding. Getting to the point where everyone collects data on all work zones and in the same format will be a formidable undertaking.

And the richness of the data will make it even more complex. Consider the proposed elements for just this one item:

This will not be easy. But the rewards in reduced crashes and improved operational efficiency demand that we move forward. Perhaps we might start with a few “standard” elements such as location, dates, and measures of the temporary reductions in capacity as a way of demonstrating what can be done. Once consumers of this data get a taste, they will demand additional elements. And it will then be much easier to cost justify the effort.