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.

Renewing the National Commitment to the Interstate Highway System: A Foundation for the Future

We are looking forward to the American Traffic Safety Services Association (ATSSA) Midyear Meetings. https://www.atssa.com/Events/Midyear-Meeting  They will be held next week (August 21 to 23) in San Diego. There will be many topics of interest including the joint working group with the Automotive Safety Council discussing automated vehicles and how their systems will communicate with work zones and a new Traffic Signals working group meeting to form a new division in ATSSA.

Not on the agenda, but sure to be another topic of conversation is a document recently published by the Transportation Research Board (TRB) titled, “Renewing the National Commitment to the Interstate Highway System: A Foundation for the Future (2019).” This report was requested by Congress to facilitate their discussions on the future of highway construction, maintenance and most importantly, funding.

Download a copy of the report HERE.

The report begins by looking at the history of the national highway system, then examines the needs for current and future maintenance and expansion and the funding problems of the trust fund. Finally, it offers a “Blueprint for Action” including these 10 recommendations:

  1. Congress should require a new program to rebuild and revitalize our existing highway system.
  2. They should work with states to “right size” the highway system, adding capacity where needed to meet developing demand.
  3. FHWA should work with states to assess the structural integrity of existing pavements and use that to decide when full reconstruction is more cost-effective than repaving.
  4. These improvements should be paid for by immediately raising the federal fuel tax to cover the federal share of the investment in renewal and modernization.
  5. Congress should allow states and local agencies to toll existing roadways as a way of helping them pay their share of these improvements.
  6. To avoid future funding shortfalls due to changes in technology, Congress should prepare to change from a per gallon fuel charge to a miles-driven or other user-based system.
  7. A new database of pavement conditions should be developed and combined with new modeling software to help make better decisions regarding the roads that should be improved.
  8. Begin preparing for connected and automated vehicles by learning what they will need in terms of roadway safety infrastructure including pavement markings signs, and temporary traffic control devices.
  9. With the goal of a more resilient highway system, assess the potential threats to our roadways from climate change and extreme weather and determine where improvements to our roads should be made.
  10. Recommend ways of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

As Congress works once again on a new highway bill, this document is sure to be a part of the discussion. Most of these 10 recommendations fit nicely with ATSSA’s efforts to improve roadway safety. Familiarize yourself with these recommendations and include them in your next conversation with your elected representatives!

Safety First For Automated Driving

We were recently given a copy of “Safety First For Automated Driving 2019”. It is an attempt by a consortium of AV stakeholders to standardize and formalize the validation and verification of testing for AV systems. It was authored by representatives from Aptiv, Audi, Baidu, BMW, Continental, Fiat-Chrysler, HERE, Infineon, Intel, and Volkswagen, so a good cross-section of the different players in this industry. A copy can be found here.

 

 

 

 

There is a lot to this document. We won’t attempt to cover it in any detail. But there are three areas of particular interest to those of us in the work zone safety world:

  • The hand-off of vehicle control from the automated system to the operator.
  • Fail safe procedures when the system encounters something it does not expect or understand.
  • The importance of an accurate, real-time digital map.

VEHICLE-INTITATED HANDOVER

The moment the system recognizes that the conditions it “sees” are not the same as what were expected at that location, “the system shall react to compensate or shall issue a driver takeover request with a sufficient time frame for the takeover.” If the vehicle operator is unable to take control for any reason the system must initiate a fail-safe maneuver.

FAIL-SAFE PROCEDURES

“The automated driving system shall recognize system limits, especially those that do not allow the safe transition of control to the vehicle operator, and react to minimize the risk.” In the event something unexpected is encountered and when it is dangerous or impossible to hand control to the operator, the system has three options:

Comfort Stop:

This sounds similar to the vehicle pulling over when safe and parking out of the travelled way.

Safe Stop:

This would involve somewhat harder braking and the end of operation may be off the road or potentially could occur while still in a live lane.

Emergency Stop: Just like you locked up the brakes when traffic suddenly stops in front of you. There is no time to do anything else. This would leave the vehicle in the live lane. But we assume the condition causing it would be apparent to the other drivers, as well, so they would likely stop, too.

IMPORTANCE OF ACCURATE MAPS

The report states this clearly, “Failures relating to planned road changes can be avoided by incorporating road change plans from a road authority into the map updating process.” This, of course, requires real-time updates to the data. Like most people outside of our industry, they assume perfect knowledge by the DOT. But as you know, most “road change plans” are often wrong. Many contractors file provisional traffic control plans. Start and end dates change, weather delays the work, etc.

Now it was not within the scope of this document to address the how, just the why. It is up to us to find the most efficient ways to update maps in real-time. But they did recognize the need, and they also felt it was important that everyone have access to the same information. “as indispensable public information, road construction and maintenance plans should be fully transparent and easily accessible by all map providers.”

They also addressed the need to find out when the maps are wrong and to learn from those incidents.  “Errors as a result of real-world changes are difficult to monitor and control, thus they should be carefully analyzed.” Our industry will need access to the data so that we can optimize the ways in which our systems define and report road changes.

Finally, they reiterate the importance of accurate, real-time information, “an effective mechanism for map updating or maintenance is critically important” (emphasis added).  We are happy to see they recognize the need, but they don’t understand how to accomplish that: “A map updating or maintenance platform that comprises sensor data collected from multiple inputs, including but not limited to survey car fleets, massively deployed intelligent vehicles (e.g. vehicles with the ability to collect sensor data), high resolution satellite images and/or road infrastructures with surveillance sensors, can effectively detect the random road changes and lower the risk of random RMA failures.”

The good news is that they recognize the same AV safety issues we have. The bad news is that they do not understand work zone reporting. They believe agencies have perfect knowledge. Any gaps in that knowledge they still think can be filled by probe vehicles gathering and reporting changes as they are encountered. While that will help in some regards, work zones must be automatically reported by the people or equipment doing the work. No other method changes the maps accurately and the moment the lane is closed or reopened.

FHWA Seeks Pilot Sites for Work Zone Data Framework

 

In the Spring Edition of the FHWA Work Zone Management Program newsletter, they included a notice saying the FHWA Work Zone Data Initiative is looking for state agencies willing to use the Initiative’s  new work zone data framework to collect, process and share data.

This initiative is important for a number of reasons, but primarily because until we have a national standard saying what data should be collected and how it should be stored and shared, we will not be able to compare work zone safety and efficiency from state to state. Every state truly is different, but by opening these doors each state will be able to learn what they do especially well, and where they might improve.

Todd Peterson is the FHWA manager for this project and we encourage states to talk with him to learn more about this effort and how they might get involved. But let’s take this a step further.

If you are a state agency who is already working with Connected Work Zone systems please, PLEASE get involved in the initiative.  The Work Zone Data Initiative is working to identify what data should be collected. If you are already working with Connected Work Zones you have a wealth of data at your fingertips. And if you have been doing it very long, you already have a good idea of what is valuable and what is less so.

Most states don’t know what is available. They have their own databases and not much else. So, we need your participation to be sure those types of data are included. You also have some experience with the format or formats for that data, and you may be able to offer good advice on the best one for this application.

This effort has been many years in the making. It would be a shame if it is done without your help. We might even have to scrap this new framework and start over if we don’t get it right the first time. Call or write Todd Peterson today. And learn more about the Work Zone Data Initiative by clicking on the links.

Required Operator Training for Autonomous Vehicles?

We have talked here in the past about the difficulties autonomous vehicle drivers (operators?) will have acclimating when control of their vehicles is handed back to them, such as when they approach a work zone. Studies with simulators have shown a need for anywhere from 4 to 14 seconds for a driver to get a full grasp of all of the relevant external factors they must consider as they begin to drive.

A recent article in Axios Autonomous Vehicles points out that aviation has made use of automation for some time now. And they, too, understand the problem of moving from automated to human operators. In aviation, training focuses on that hand-off. Pilots are drilled in flight simulators on a variety of potential problems. So, when they encounter that problem during a real flight, muscle memory takes over and they react quickly and correctly.

The recent 737 Max 8 crash further underlines the importance of that training. It was apparently not included and that may have contributed to the pilot’s difficulty in regaining control.

The difference between aviation and autonomous vehicles is that training is mandatory for all pilots. If you fly a 767 you must stay current in all 767 training. However, for vehicles, a big selling point is that drivers no longer have to drive. They are told they can act more as passengers – gazing out the window, catching up on work, or watching an endless variety of streaming entertainment. Getting from that idea to one of mandatory training is a very long stretch!

Adding to the problem are the very different ways automakers are designing the machine-to-human hand-off. Each one is different.

In the Axios article, they quote Steve Casner of NASA, “We’re terrible at paying attention — and we think we’re awesome at it” Mr. Casner argues that drivers will need training. And they will need continuous updates to that training in order to learn how to deal with automation. Without initial user training and frequent refresh classes drivers will quickly become complacent.

This is a new topic of discussion but one that we must have to make CAVs safe for work zones and other segments of roadway with changing conditions.

New Open Source AV Visualization Tools May Aid Our Industry

One of the challenges the roadway safety infrastructure industry faces in regard to autonomous vehicles is understanding how those vehicles visualize the world they are passing through. Manufacturers have been restrained in their sharing of that information. The best we can get out of them is “Keep doing what you are doing to make striping, signing and traffic control devices easier to see.”

But a story published yesterday in The Verge by Andrew Hawkins details efforts by GM Cruise and Uber to make some of those visualization tools open source and free to use. It is even provided in a fairly simple and easy to use format that anyone can use on most any device.

 

This could be very useful for pavement marking manufacturers or contractors. It may be helpful for sign manufacturers. And it will definitely help traffic control device manufacturers understand what the vehicle “sees” and what it does not.

Now this is far from the ultimate testing platform, but it will help our industry begin to develop an understanding of the underlying issues and ways we may be able to address them. It may also help work zone ITS providers in that it offers a simple data formatting system that may be able to accommodate data feeds from smart work zones.

The GM Cruise tool is called “Worldview” and can be found HERE.

The Uber tool is called “Autonomous Visualization System” or AVS for short and can be found HERE.

We haven’t spoken with anyone who has used these tools yet. So, please try them out and tell us what you think. Are they useful to our industry? And, if so, how? What can be improved? We look forward to hearing from you!

 

Drivers Recognize the Importance of Connected Work Zones

We have been talking for the past couple of years about “connected work zones” – that is, the automatic and real-time method of putting our work zones on the digital map that everyone is quickly coming to depend upon when choosing a route.

We have argued that traffic control workers don’t need more to do when they are setting up or tearing down a work zone. So, to arrive at a point where we have timely and accurate reporting of work zones, it must happen automatically.

Several companies are now providing solutions. Those solutions vary in their complexity and technologies involved. But in their simplest form they each include a device attached to existing traffic control devices. One of those is normally the arrow board. The beauty of this approach is that when the arrow board is turned on, the system immediately tells the digital map that a work zone just popped up on that route at that precise location. And when it is turned off, it tells the map that the work zone is now gone. It happens every time a “smart” arrow board is used and those are becoming more and more common.

We all “get” this. But now the driving public is also recognizing the importance of these systems. An article by Tim Harlow in the January 27th Minneapolis Star-Tribune talks about a system supplied by Street Smart Rentals to Minnesota DOT in the Twin Cities.

He points out that the existing 511 system does a good job of informing the public about long-term projects, but that short-term and unplanned closures can cause just as much disruption yet are not included in their warnings to the public.

The system supplied by Mike Granger and Street Smart Rentals is changing that for the better. And with the arrival of autonomous vehicles, this will become even more important. In the article Brian Kary, MnDOT’s Director of Traffic Operations “said the technology is not active now, but it could be this summer or fall. MnDOT is evaluating costs before making it a permanent 511 feature. The agency also is setting up a timeline install the technology and figuring out how best to get information to other traffic information sources, such as Google, Waze and TomTom, since not everybody uses 511.”

We believe economies of scale will quickly and significantly reduce those costs. And the need for this information will bring down any barriers to those traffic information sources. We look forward to hearing more about this system and others like it the exciting year to come.