5G Cell Service and Opportunities for Our Industry

By now, most of you are aware that 5G phone service will be here soon. But you may not understand what that means for our industry. An article written by Hongtao Zhan of SureCall and published recently in VB talks about its potential:

https://venturebeat.com/2017/09/30/5g-isnt-just-faster-it-will-open-up-a-whole-new-world/

As the article points out, download speeds could be as much as 100 times faster than we currently experience with 4G service. This service will be expensive at first but once everyone has switched to 5G devices those faster download speeds could result in greater use of video as data rates eventually decline.

But the most important aspect of 5G for our purposes is latency. Latency is a measure of how quickly critical data is transmitted. 5G offers near zero latency. This will enable an incredible array of new technologies affecting every part of our lives. That is why “Qualcomm is calling 5G the “platform for invention.””

Mr. Zhan describes ways 5G could be used for things like haptic controls in vehicles for purposes such as lane keeping, collision avoidance and more. For our world haptic controls mean we could deploy “virtual rumble strips” in advance of work areas to wake up drivers and perhaps even to return control of autonomous vehicles over to drivers.

Zero latency means workers could be removed from the work area and could perform many dangerous operations remotely using a virtual reality head set and controls. For example, they could “drive” TMA trucks remotely. We might also create a remote control cone setting machine. Striping trucks and RPM installation might also be automated.

How about a phone app to warn workers? With near zero latency, we could create an intrusion warning system that works fast enough to save lives, while requiring very little in additional equipment – just the smart phones everyone is already carrying around. The work area could be delineated on a digital map and any vehicle crossing those lines would trigger warnings to anyone in the area who has downloaded the app.

The possibilities are endless and this new communications protocol is right around the corner. It is time for us to begin thinking about how we might use it to improve safety and save lives.

Work Zone Reporting to Autonomous Vehicles

We just returned from ATSSA’s Midyear meetings in Louisville, Kentucky. The Innovation Council meeting was well attended and included several very interesting speakers. Many topics were discussed but the real focus of these discussions, both during and after the meeting, was autonomous and automated vehicles and how our members can best prepare for them.

Speakers including Dr. Paul Carlson talked about the importance of signs and pavement markings bright enough to be seen and recognized by automated vehicles. AV manufacturers have stated that this is the most important thing we as an industry can do to prepare, at least from the autonomous vehicle perspective.

But from a stakeholders’ perspective – specifically work zone safety – many wonder how autonomous vehicles will know where work zones are located and what they will encounter as they drive through them. This blog has discussed this subject several times over the past few weeks, but given the interest in Louisville, it seemed a good time to review all of the likely ways in which this will be accomplished and consider the advantages and disadvantages of each.

There are at least 6 ways to do this. And by “this” we mean update digital maps in real time. First we must tell everyone where work zones are active. That’s the most important part. For by telling them, those autonomous vehicles can then trigger a return of control to the driver well before the vehicle enters the actual work zone. But ideally, these systems will also include information about that work zone including which lanes are closed, prevailing speeds, and geometric changes including lane shifts, narrow lanes, etc.

So, in no particular order, these are the more likely ways of getting that information out in real time:

Traffic Control Device Automated Reporting

Devices including arrow boards, traffic sensors, flashing beacons, and stop/slow paddles can be equipped to report to a traffic data service or DOT website. This is already being done today. When the device is turned on, it reports its GPS coordinates and the type of work zone. For example, an arrow board, when turned on would report a lane closure. When it is turned off, the device reports the work zone is no longer active.

The advantage of this approach is the activity is truly reported in real time without human input. Another advantage is the location will change as the equipment moves, say for a paving or crack sealing operation. The disadvantage is the need to replace older devices with newer devices that include this feature.

3M Two-Dimensional Bar Codes

This was the subject of a post on August 21st and was discussed by Chuck Bergman of Michigan DOT and Eric Hedman of 3M at the Innovation Council meeting. 3M has installed signs on I-75 in Michigan with two-dimensional bar codes embedded in their sign sheeting. A driver might see a sign saying ROAD WORK AHEAD but infrared cameras in the car would see a second embedded message telling the car to relinquish control to the driver, or to reduce speed automatically to 45 MPH, or any one of a number of other possibilities.

This approach will work well for longer term work zones and ones where the desired message is unlikely to change often. It will likely be low cost and could act as a fail-safe warning to autonomous vehicles. It does not update digital maps simply by installing the signs, but we assume that will be done manually at about the same time.

State DOT Work Zone Phone Apps

Many states require contractors to request lane closures in advance and then to report when those closures begin and end. Some now accomplish this through smart phone apps that make it quick and easy o report in real time.

This is already taking place but it does require someone to key in the closure when it begins and ends. And moving operations won’t be precisely geo-located. Still, it is inexpensive and requires very little effort.

Waze, HERE and other Crowd Sourced Traffic Apps

Users of these smart phone apps can note active work zones and other issues affecting traffic and that information is shared with all other users. This additional information is helpful but depends on users to remain current. Interestingly these apps are beginning to include data streams from work zone ITS systems. So the hybridization of these systems has already begun. And in our last post we noted that Caltrans traffic website known as QuickMap now includes Waze work zone data.

I2V (Infrastructure to Vehicle) Reporting via 4G/5G or DSRC

This was how we originally envisioned the process taking place. A radio of some sort might be installed in advance warning message signs or arrow boards where it would broadcast to approaching traffic to warn of upcoming work zones. These devices might also report slow or stopped traffic ahead. This may still happen, but advances in V2V (vehicle to vehicle) communications both 5G and DSRC make this less likely.

Automatic Reporting by Autonomous Vehicles

AV data collection will “see” and take note of variations of the real world roads from the digital map. This might include some standard deployment of devices in advance of work zones that could be recognized by algorithms to mean a work zone lies ahead.

This has not been suggested that we know of, but autonomous vehicles collect data continuously. That’s a lot of data. Machine learning and sophisticated algorithms will, in time, learn to recognize work zones. Logically those will then be reported automatically as work zones change. This may not occur for many years but it will happen automatically one day.

The change from driven to autonomous vehicles will be a very gradual one. Most experts believe it will take at least 25 years and even then older vehicles, collector cars, etc. will still be sharing the road with driverless ones. Furthermore, the choice of technology to warn of work zones will vary with location, construction activity, project duration, and more. As a result, differing combinations of technologies will likely be used in an effort to reach the greatest number of vehicles and to provide redundancy. After all, as time has proven over and over again, as cars become easier to drive, we become worse drivers. So it will be all the more important that we warn drivers and vehicles of work zones ahead.

Google Maps are Wrong!

At any given time, perhaps 5% of Google Maps data is wrong. And the reason is simple. Construction traffic control requires contractors to close lanes, redirect traffic into oncoming lanes, or close roads altogether until the work has been completed. Those closures are reported to state and local agencies. And those reports are picked up by Google and other traffic data aggregators. But they are often wrong or out of date.

In most states, contractors are required to request permission to close a lane. That request must be made well in advance of the date on which they wish to close the lane, 7 to 10 days on average. By the time that day comes long, construction delays, weather, and other issues often postpone the work and the lane closure does not take place.

Contractors also often make several requests so they will have a multi-day window in which they can perform the work. The days they don’t work are called ghost closures. Some states have moved to eliminate ghost closures by requiring contractors to call the local traffic management center when the lane is taken and again when it is opened back up. This certainly helps, but it does not eliminate the problem altogether.

To make matters worse, many closures are never reported at all. Utility companies are notorious for closing lanes without permission. They reason that they are only there for a short time and so won’t affect traffic all that much. But as traffic becomes more dependent on accurate travel time and route information, any disruption causes problems, and may even be dangerous.

Incident response closes lanes; school crossing guards stop traffic; special events close roads and reroute traffic; flooding, fires and other environmental events also result in route closures and restrictions.

This is an important point of discussion in the automated/autonomous vehicle world, too. If autonomous vehicles depend on historic GPS data to plan and drive a route, they will run into unexpected construction. So they must decide how they will adapt to changes in geometry, in the number and location of lanes, and much more. And delays resulting from these closed lanes and detours should be measured and included in any travel time algorithms.

It is worth noting that the folks in the traffic data companies know of the problem but they can’t solve it on their own. Industry is beginning to fill this need. Arrow boards and flagger stop/slow paddles are being reinvented to become “smart devices”. They report in automatically when work begins and ends. And they also report their precise location. As the work moves, that is reported as well, so map data for work zones can now be reported in real time.

Much work remains to be done. But the solution to this problem is clear. The closures must be reported in real time from the field. And that includes any changes in geometry when lanes are temporarily shifted in one direction or another. Highway construction, incident response and special events all experience unexpected changes on a daily and often hourly basis. Maps must reflect those changes if our system is to be as safe and efficient as possible.

Sending Work Zone Warnings to Cell Phones

workzone-alertThe Minnesota Department of Transportation just released a study looking at one way of triggering in-vehicle messages in vehicles approaching work zones. The authors Chen-Fu Liao and Max Donath of the University of Minnesota tested the concept of sending low-energy BlueTooth messages to Android phones equipped with a custom app they call Workzone Alert.

The app triggers an audible, visible and/or tactile warning to the driver as he or she approaches a work zone. Drivers who are speeding can also be warned to slow down. And the app can even disable calling and texting while within the confines of the work zone.

Report 2016-38 entitled “Investigating the Effectiveness of Using BlueTooth Low-Energy Technology to Trigger In-Vehicle Messages in Work Zones” was published by the Minnesota DOT. You can download a copy HERE.

 

Their design worked well and proved that vehicles traveling at speeds of up to 70 MPH could receive warning messages as they approached a work zone.

We have talked about a future with DSRC “pods” transmitting to vehicles. We have also talked about those same DSRC devices attached to PCMS as a stop gap to reach all vehicles until nearly all are equipped with receivers. But a better way might be through 5G cell service as that is already available and in most vehicles.

These “BLE tags” use very little power so they could be attached to message signs or arrow boards without affecting the signs performance. When packaged with a small battery they could also be attached to a simple sign post or overpass.

The downside is the cell phones must currently be placed into a BlueTooth discover mode to find existing tags. This uses more power and results in reductions in charge life for the phones. But if this technology continues to show promise, the Android and iPhone operating systems could surely be changed to receive these messages in something similar to a discover mode but one that uses far less power when not receiving. The BLE tag locations are stored allowing phones to run Workzone Alert in background except when passing known tag locations.

They also attempted to make the technology easy to deploy. A second app was developed to make it easy for traffic control contractors to update the message that Workzone Alert displays for a specific BLE tag.

Work at the U of M continues. The current, second phase of research is looking at human-factors considerations for alerts. What wording and format should be used to get the best results? In the third phase they will look at how best to maintain the BLE tag database, who should be able to make changes, and if it is practical to tie this into 511, Waze or Google Maps. Stay tuned as this promises to develop quickly!

What Do Automated and Connected Vehicles Need to Know About Work Zones?

AUVS

On July 20th, Ross Sheckler of iCone made a presentation to the Autonomous Vehicles Symposium in San Francisco. The title of his presentation was “What Do Automated and Connected Vehicles Need to Know About Work Zones?” His message was very important. It was well-received by those in attendance, but the group that needs to hear this is many times larger than the 100 or so people in the room that day. So we will try to make his main points in today’s post.

Remember, most of the attendees were not work zone people, though a few of us were there that day. Most work for automotive manufacturers or component manufacturers. They produce navigation systems – some in use today and some that will guide autonomous vehicles in the future. Those cars will drive through our work zones, yet the folks who produce them know very little about temporary traffic control. So Ross began by pointing out that the map changes 1,000 times per day due to work zones. 1,000 times per day workers change the law, and 10,000 times per day warnings are posted. His point being, of course, that we must find a way to inform these systems.

Mr. Sheckler also explained that most closures are never reported. And of those that are reported, most don’t occur on the dates and times they are scheduled. He went on to say that the most dangerous closures are probably those unreported ones. He used the example of a short term utility closure on a rural road with bad line of sight.  The people doing that type of work often do not worry much about traffic control. They might place a 10 foot taper of cones and a ROAD WORK AHEAD sign, but even that is somewhat rare. Automotive systems must be able to recognize these work areas and react appropriately.

And when traffic control is reported, it only shows up in navigation apps as “roadwork”. It does not say it is a lane shift, or multiple lane closure sure to cause queuing. It does not say the entire geometry has changed by moving traffic over into the oncoming lanes separated by concrete barrier. And it does not tell you if the work is causing traffic to slow or stop. A shoulder closure is reported the same way as a full roadway closure with detour. Yet one does not affect traffic at all while the other may affect travelers’ choice of routes.

His point is that by reporting these changes as they occur it gives drivers the opportunity to avoid the area altogether. But the information must be posted as the changes occur and it must be accurate. If it is, drivers will learn to depend on it and change their routes. But if they get erroneous or inaccurate information, they will continue to drive along their intended path.

Ross finished by listing the details that are important to navigation apps, and this applies to current apps as well as future autonomous driving systems.

  1. Work zone status: scheduled versus equipment on sight and ready to work versus workers present.
  2. Map changes including lane shifts, capacity reductions of any kind, or roads closed.
  3. Queue details including slow or stopped traffic, delay times, early or late merge systems, and location of merge point.
  4. Presence of active flagging operations including location.
  5. Presence and location of attenuator trucks, especially when the attenuator is in the down or active position.

These are all details a system will require to make informed routing recommendations. And if the work does cause significant impacts, we prefer they avoid the area altogether. It is safer and more efficient for everyone involved: travelers, contractors, and for the owner/agency.

Our industry can supply this information today. So please encourage system designers to engineer with that in mind. We can all avoid a future full of expensive, time consuming, and even dangerous problems by getting the word out now.

ATSSA Innovation Update

20160826_172236

 

The American Traffic Safety Services Association (ATSSA) Midyear meetings were held this year in Chicago, August 24th through the 26th. The Innovation Council meeting was especially interesting. Council Chairman Scott Covington along with several council members continue to work to make our voice heard in the automated & autonomous vehicle world (see August 1st post).

This year’s meeting included two great presentations. The first was by Lee Cole of Oldcastle Materials. Oldcastle is a large road building contractor with operations throughout North America. They suffered a series of work zone crashes that injured and even killed their workers and Mr. Cole was charged with finding a way to mitigate work zone intrusions.

The result is a system they call AWARE: Advance Warning & Risk Evasion. It was developed by the military to reduce casualties from roadside bombs and shoulder fired rockets. But the same tracking software was adapted to track vehicles approaching the work zone and through several complicated algorithms, determine if those vehicles would pass by safely, or if they might travel into the work area.

They are testing the system with eight paving crews this summer and hope to expand the program soon.  The system appears to be very cost-effective. And it is designed to avoid false alarms while  still giving workers time to get out of the way when intrusions do occur.

 

The second presentation was made by Jon Kruger, District Construction Director for Indiana DOT. Mr. Kruger began by saying his focus is on building roads. He didn’t know anything about work zone ITS systems a couple of years ago. But when they began work on several miles of I-94 near Chicago, he was asked to look at ways to mitigate impacts to traffic. They chose a queue warning system and it has worked out very well.

He now requires these systems on most of his paving projects. He said they do so 70% for safety and 30% for the data they generate. He said queue lengths are very unpredictable. He saw a big discrepancy between predicted queue lengths and actual. Volumes varied widely and alternate routes played a big role in that by drawing traffic away from the affected areas. They have even adjusted work windows when their real time data shows it is justified.

Neil Boudreau, the state traffic engineer for Massachusetts DOT agreed with Jon saying that they use the data they collect on each project to build a database. Eventually they will learn what happens when a certain type of project is performed on a particular route, or in a particular area. They then hope to have a more precise idea of when lane closures should be allowed and when they should not.

 

If you are involved in traffic engineering or with autonomous and automated vehicles, consider becoming involved with the ATSSA Innovation Council. They have become the point at which those two worlds interact with our work zone communityto make our roads safer.