The Implications of Connected and Automated Vehicles for Local Agency Planning

Minnesota DOT has released a set of recommendations for local agencies to consider when planning their future capital projects and traffic control equipment investments. Report 2019-35 titled, “How Locals Need to Prepare for the Future of V2V / V2I Connected Vehicles” was written by John Hourdos and makes six specific recommendations for local agencies.

Local agencies have limited road construction and maintenance budgets. And their capital expenditures normally are expected to last 20 years. So, design and component choices they make today should be compatible, as much as possible, with emerging and future vehicle technologies. This report attempts to help them do that.

The first two recommendations are well known: maintain road markings and maintain clear signage. Without them most current vehicle systems cannot navigate accurately.  Proper levels of retroreflectivity and standard, consistent formatting are key.

The third recommendation is to modernize roadway design information. Some geometric features may have an affect on autonomous vehicles. But what those features are and how they will affect future vehicles is not clear today, so this advice is more difficult to follow. Still, we should be aware this may become an issue, including in our work zones.

They also stress the importance of accurate digital maps that can be changed in real time. “These maps will need to detail exactly where the roadways are and what their features are. They will also need to be kept up to date, as CAV applications depend on current, precise information.”

This is a topic we have written about on numerous occasions. Only when work zone details are automatically updated on our digital maps, can we expect CAVs to safely navigate our work zones.

The fourth recommendation is to modernize controller hardware. This applies primarily to permanent signal controllers. They recommend spending the money for controllers with room to add new software as CAVs become more common. Our portable, temporary signal vendors should keep this in mind if and when they redesign their equipment or software.

The report is short and high-level, but it can start the process of planning for the future in our many local agencies.

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!