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!

 

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.

Automated Vehicle Roundtable Held at ATSSA Midyear Meetings

The American Traffic Safety Services Association (ATSSA) recently concluded their annual Midyear meetings in Williamsburg, Virginia. Their Innovation Council met on August 23rd. But before the meeting began officially, they held a joint round-table discussion with members of the Automotive Safety Council. The ASC represents manufacturers of automotive safety system components including cameras, LIDAR, radar and other sensors.

The ASC led off by presenting a sort of Automotive Sensors 101 class that explained the different technologies, what they do well, and what they don’t do so well. This was a big help to ATSSA members who must design traffic control devices that these sensors will be able to “see” and react to in the very near future.

Cameras used for lane tracking look out about 500 feet on highways with a viewing angle of 40 to as much as 100 degrees. The viewing distance decreases on city streets while the viewing angle increases. As camera technology improves, they plan to hold the lane keeping range to 150m as there is little benefit to extending it. Instead they will widen the field of view to better detect pedestrians, balls rolling into the street, etc.

Cameras currently see black & white (gray scale) and red. White lane markings are much easier for cameras to see than yellow because white has far better contrast.

The ASC maintained (as we do) that digital maps must be updated in real time. Long term work zones are easy enough to include in digital maps. Short term work zones are more of a problem. And chip seals are the worst as they are short term AND include no pavement markings – just chip seal markers.

As we move from level 3 to 4 and 5 automotive system hardware won’t change much. It will probably decrease in price, but that’s all. Rather the system functionality and human-machine language will be the key differentiators. The algorithms used by the vehicle to decide what is important, what is not, and how the vehicle should react will constantly evolve and improve.

The ASC shared their market forecast for growth in the next few years. In 2020 the first level 5 vehicles will be sold. Level 2 (driver assist) vehicles will total about 13 million vehicles. By 2030 more than 90 million vehicles will have at least level 2 automation and level 5 will total nearly 3 million vehicles. But that means less than 5% of all vehicles on the road in 2030 will be level 5.

There are still very different approaches to level 3 automation. At level 3, vehicles will automatically center in their lanes, follow a route and stop when required. But unexpected conditions, such as work zones, causes the vehicle to return control to the driver. Some manufacturers see level 3 as a step toward levels 4 and 5. But others, especially Google, feel level 3 is dangerous and so will not produce cars requiring human control at any time. Level 3 peaks in 2025 at 2 million vehicles then drops as level 4 and 5 vehicles become more popular and available.

The ASC group told us control will be ceded in work zones. But how that will happen is not clear. Still, they agreed with us on the need for sufficient time for the driver to acclimate before having to make important decisions.

Once the ASC concluded their presentation, Scott McCanna of David Evans & Associates made a presentation from our industry perspective and asked several thought-provoking questions about work zones along the way.

When channelizing devices including cones, drums and delineators are used to redefine a lane, will device spacing become important for automated vehicles? Will we need to maintain some minimal spacing to hold CAVs attention? And what happens when one or two cones are knocked down? Will the automated vehicle become disoriented? Or revert to the old lane markings?

It was further suggested than CAV logic should see drums and cones as a higher priority when choosing a direction of travel than existing pavement markings. Drums, cones, etc. should indicate a change…perhaps one that automatically triggers driver control in the case of Level 3 CAVs.

The time went by very quickly and everyone agreed it was a great first step in building better understanding between our two industries. Future meetings are already planned to build on this and plan for our future.

 

National Dialogue on Highway Automation

Being the work zone data nerds that we are, we attended the National Dialogue on Highway Automation Workshop #2: Digital Infrastructure and Data held August 1st and 2nd in Seattle. The first workshop covered planning and policy. Workshop #3 focuses on freight. #4 is Operations and is held at the same time as the National Rural ITS meeting in Phoenix. The final workshop will be held late this year in Austin and will be more technical in nature as it covers infrastructure design and safety.

Each workshop includes a series of presentations followed by breakout groups where ideas are discussed and then shared with the larger group. The format works well and benefits from the input of a wide range of stakeholders.

You will be happy to hear that work zones came up early and often. In fact the opening comments used work zones as an example of the need for some sort of standardization as every agency now provides varying amounts of data, different types of data, different formats and a very wide range of detail. Another speaker called work zones the “low hanging fruit” for highway automation in general and data collection and dissemination in particular.

There were about 200 in attendance and maybe 30 raised their hands when asked who attended the Automated Vehicle Symposium last month in San Francisco. So, this was an almost entirely new group.

You should also know the FHWA is seriously committed to this process. They had 20 or 30 of their own people at this event running it, moderating the breakout sessions, and asking lots of questions.

There were a number of themes that jumped out at us. One was data quality and verification. The consensus was that state DOTs will probably have the responsibility of verifying data accuracy. But what that process might be is unclear. It will likely vary by data type. In our case it will probably come as a quality check after it is already posted. Work zone activity must be reported in real time to be actionable, so they will weed the inaccurate reports (and reporters) out after the fact.

Remarkably most in the room were well acquainted with the MUTCD. Multiple comments suggested that it needs to be revised to recognize automated vehicles. Some even suggested reducing the leeway states have in specifying sign formats, pavement marking details, etc. to create more consistent traffic control for CAVs. But later others pointed out this is unlikely to happen and the effort would be better spent doing this outside the MUTCD process, at least to begin with.

These two days were time well spent. If you are able, we strongly encourage you to participate in one of their future workshops, especially the event in Phoenix. It will be focused on traffic operations. But because it will be held in conjunction with the NRITS show, it will also spend more time on automated vehicles and rural roads.  Learn more HERE.

News from the Automated Vehicles Symposium

We just returned from the Automated Vehicle Symposium held annually in San Francisco. It has always been a wonderful venue for the exchange of ideas and concerns about automated vehicles. This year work zones and roadway safety infrastructure continue to make progress in the AV world. In fact, it is remarkable how the conversation has changed in a few short years. Three years ago, we told the automakers what they needed to understand about work zones. It was a major epiphany for them. Last year we offered a way to report work zones in real time. This year the discussion focused on the tools available and how best to use them.

Breakout Session # 32 titled “OEM/DOT Dialog on Dedicated Lanes, Work Zones, and Shared Data” was broken into those three topics. They were all worthwhile but in the interest of time we will focus on the work zone portion here. The focus of the session was real-time reporting of work zones to automated vehicles and digital maps.

Ross Sheckler of iCone started off by describing the tools that will make work zone reporting automatic and accurate – both in terms of location and time.

Paul Pisano of FHWA discussed the connected work zone grant. They are evaluating in-car traffic information. The study runs from May 2017 to March 2019. One of the desired outcomes of the study is to standardize work zone data elements. Every state, every practitioner, etc. has their own list and they have started the discussion of what should be on that list and how it should be formatted so that everyone can report things like work zones in the same way.

They plan to do this in two states: what they called a low-fidelity version and a high-fidelity version. The Low fidelity version will come first and includes the simplest of elements: GPS location, start and end dates, and some description of the work zone such as “right lane closed”. The later, high fidelity version will include detailed lane level mapping and much more.

Bob Brydia of TTI discussed his work with connected work zones on I-35 between Austin and Dallas. He collected data on each and every lane closure – 1,000s of them over the past few years. Each recorded lane closure included 60 fields to describe each closure. That’s a lot! But OEMs have told him they want much, much more!

In a related topic it was pointed out that in the recent federal RFI on connected vehicles, two different US automaker trade associations said they want a universal work zone database! So, we all see the need. Its just a matter of deciding what it should include, as Paul described earlier.

Bob Brydia says they currently send work zone data out as traffic info to help drivers. But eventually this will become more of a traffic operations function. CAVs will use this info to automatically reduce delays and speed travel times.

It was a great session, as always, and we look forward to more dramatic progress next year.