FHWA Work Zone Data Initiative

We in the work zone traffic control world and specifically the work zone ITS world have long wrestled with how best to gather and evaluate work zone data. This has been a topic of discussion at conferences, peer-to-peer exchanges, and in DOTs nationwide. These systems are now providing a great deal of data and the FHWA feels it is time we settled on a standard approach to that data. In response, they have launched the Work Zone Data Initiative (WZDI).

The stated goals of the initiative are:

“To develop a recommended practice for managing work zone data.” And to “create a consistent language for communicating information on work zone activity across jurisdictional and organizational boundaries.”

They are working to develop a specification for work zone data that supports DOT efforts throughout the project and also allows some sort of standardized evaluation and comparison once that project is complete. They want the data to become more useful for project planning, for real-time traffic operations, and for post project analytics.

This is something our industry must be involved in. Please let us know if you are. But if you are not, please contact Todd Peterson, FHWA Work Zone Management Team Transportation Specialist to express your interest. His email address is Todd.Peterson@dot.gov .

 

USDOT has also announced a competition on Advancing Innovative Ways to Analyze Crash Data. They point out that most crash data (as well as work zone data) is siloed and made available only on an annual basis. By opening those sources of data up, DOT hopes to take advantage of new tools such as machine learning (see 4/10/17 post) to gain insights on ways we can reduce roadway fatalities.

This effort is not work zone specific, but could result in improvements that our past state and project specific analysis was unable to find.

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.

Work Zone Traffic Control “Down-Under”

We just returned from a wonderful trip to Australia where we spoke to the Traffic Management Association of Australia (TMAA) about work zone ITS. Their members were all excited and focused on finding safer, more efficient ways to manage their work zones.

The program was packed full of interesting speakers and a variety of timely topics. They also gave us all just the right amount of time to discuss those topics between sessions. It was very well run.

The attendees seemed to enjoy talking to Americans and all asked what we thought of the meeting. My first answer was always the same: traffic control companies in both countries share the exact same set of problems:

1) Speeding in work zones.

2) End-of-queue crashes.

3) Hiring, training and retaining good employees.

4) A perception by the driving public that we are there to make their lives miserable.

5) Insufficient funding for maintenance and construction.

6) Changing standards and levels of enforcement from one state to the next.

7) Varying commitment and funding levels from one state to the next.

Just like ATSSA, the TMAA brings contractors, manufacturers, academia and government agencies together to discuss these problems and identify solutions. The TMAA does an especially good job of this. We look forward to learning more from them in the years to come!

Data Latency and Work Zone ITS

We met recently with a large local agency to discuss the idea of connected work zones and the concept of reporting work zones in real time to the digital maps we all use to get from Point A to Point B. She was excited about the idea but had concerns about delays that are sometimes experienced between the time when an incident occurs and the time when it is reported to you by your navigation app.

According to Waze, 65 million drivers regularly use their navigation service to get home as quickly and efficiently as possible. Drivers want to know about problems along their routes before they reach them and in time to take another faster route if it makes sense to do so. Richard Russell, a former sales engineer with Google, said five years ago that, “we actually want negative latency, and will perceive anything less as latency.”

That was about the time that Google purchased Waze. Waze works because users report problems in real time thus helping to reduce latency. HERE has found another way to reduce latency. They look at in-vehicle sensors such as hard braking sensors to identify and locate traffic issues the moment they begin. HERE also plans to begin including user reports to get as close to real-time reporting as possible.

Today, work zones are the single largest cause of non-recurring congestion. So, if we could report work zones in real time (see Work Zone Reporting to Autonomous Vehicles – posted 9/25/18) it will make these services even more valuable. Imagine arrow boards equipped with a device to report location and display status every time it is turned on or off!

Yet how will these services process an unimaginable amount of data including location, date & time, type of incident, and some form of verification and get it to the user without at least some delay? That is a problem only Waze or HERE can answer. We can tell you they are working on it.

In the meantime, some small amount of latency (a few seconds to as much as a minute) is going to exist. But the service is still valuable. In today’s worst-case scenario Driver A leaves home and asks for the fastest route to work. The app recommends the best one based on conditions at that time. Perhaps moments earlier an arrow board was turned on when a contractor closed a lane along that route for maintenance work. A short time later the app reports that roadwork and reroutes Driver A along a now preferable route. The app still saves him time, just not quite as much time as it might have with instant knowledge of all work zones.

Zero latency is the goal. But let’s not allow the perfect to be the enemy of good.

USDOT Roundtable on Data for Automated Vehicle Safety

On December 7th of 2017 the USDOT convened an interesting group of stakeholders to discuss automated vehicle data needs. The goal was simply to better understand what will be needed, so we can all work in that same direction. Attendees included automakers, regulators, local agencies, privacy advocates, data aggregators including Waze and HERE, universities, and industry.

They have published a short document detailing their findings. Download “roundtable-data-automated-vehicle-safety-report[3585]” here.

A set of four principles was discussed and supported by the group. Those included

  • Promote best practices for data security and privacy.
  • Act as a facilitator to promote voluntary data exchanges.
  • Start out small to find what works and then build on that.
  • Coordinate across modes to save time and money.

Number 2 is perhaps the most problematic. Vehicle and component manufacturers are still playing their cards very close to their vests. They will continue to protect whatever competitive advantage they feel they have. They don’t mind sharing what everyone else is sharing but don’t want to go beyond that point for obvious reasons. So, what will be shared will start with basics such as crash data, AV hours driven, etc. and will grow from there.

The good news, for our purposes here, is the discussion of high priority use cases. #1 on the list is “Monitoring Planned and Unplanned Work Zones”. The data they felt was of the highest value included, “Work zone locations, planned duration of project, updates, planned lane closures, changes in signing, directions, or parking.”

Other encouraging use cases include #2 “Providing Real-Time Road Conditions”. There they discuss the need for data on detours and missing or deficient signs and pavement markings.

Under testing discussions, there was an emphasis on safety-critical scenarios which would have to include work zones. Clearly manufacturers must test not just in ideal conditions, but in all conditions including bad weather, poorly delineated work zones, and in and around major and minor incidents.

They coined the term “Edge Cases” which refer to a “problem or situation that occurs only at the extreme operating parameter.” Certainly, most testing today will continue at or below 35 MPH on a sunny day and under controlled conditions. But once we are all satisfied that AVs can drive safety in ideal conditions, it will be time for the worst-case scenarios. Again, work zones will surely be a part of that.

The last use case of interest was improving roadway inventories. The group felt high-value data for this effort included,””edge-to-edge”, high-definition map elements (e.g., signs and signals, curbs, pavement markings, tolls, express lanes, bridge heights and weight capacities, highway dividers, overpasses, pedestrian areas, bicycle lanes, taxi drop-off zones, (and) quality metrics.”

Under “proposed federal roles” they talk about the USDOT acting as a facilitator of sharing and discussions between the various stakeholders. It’s good to know work zones are now a part of that discussion. Thank you to USDOT for helping make that happen. Our greatest fear just a few short years ago was that the automotive industry would get too far down the road with their development to accommodate special circumstances including work zones, special events and incident response. It’s great to see that won’t be the case.

Are Autonomous Vehicles Safe?

On February 6th we sat in on a FHWA T3 webinar entitled “Are Autonomous Vehicles Safe?” It was moderated by Dr. Francesca Favaro of San Jose State’s Mineta Transportation Institute. She runs a program known as RISA2S – “Risk & Safety Assessment of Autonomous Systems” and recently examined California DMV data from 2014 through 2016 on crashes and disengagements of automated vehicles.

Because their data is from automated vehicles on the road today, their focus has been on SAE Level 3 automation. That is, by and large, what is being tested now. Most manufacturers are not planning to offer Level 3 vehicles to the general public. But as a result their findings point out the strengths and weaknesses of Level 3 automation. So for that reason most of their presentation came to focus on disengagements – when the vehicle gives control back to the driver – and driver reaction time to those disengagements.

This is an issue of critical importance to work zones. At some point in the future autonomous vehicles will negotiate work zones without need of human input. But that is many, many years from now. In the meantime, a mixed fleet of cars and trucks with varying levels of automation will be passing through our work zones. As Paul Carlson said at the recent ATSSA Innovation Council meeting, “We have had a mixed fleet for some time now. Any discussions of a mixed fleet now are just the next iteration of that.”

So the two related issues of when AVs disengage control, and how drivers react to those disengagements will be an important point of discussion for the foreseeable future.

Their data on disengagements was very interesting. The frequency of disengagements is declining. In fact in 2016 they were one-third of what they were per mile travelled in 2014. So the technology is improving rapidly. Machine learning will continue that trend.

11% of all disengagements were due to external conditions. 49% were due to system failures of some kind. 33% were due to human factors. And 7% to “other”.

Work zones fall within external conditions. 2.22% of all disengagements were due to construction zones and 4.63% were due to poorly marked lanes. Now, we don’t know much about the conditions when and where this testing took place. Speeds were all at or below 30 MPH. But we don’t know if it was dry and sunny, or raining at night. And we don’t know if the time spent in work zones was typical of your average driver.

Chances are they were not. In fact, chances are current testing avoids work zones most of the time so disengagements in real-world work zones would likely be many times greater.

30.12% of disengagements are due to human factors – usually driver discomfort. Some of that is a trust issue with the technology. But a large part is a desire to stay safe in fast changing situations such as near incidents, work zones, or other higher volume conditions. So I think we need to include some of that data as well.

Next let’s consider driver reaction to these disengagements. This is really two issues: what the driver does, and how fast he or she does it. But the study looked only at driver reaction time. The California DMV has not yet defined what is meant by “reaction time” yet manufacturers are required to measure it. So the data presented is inconsistent in its terminology. With that in mind it is still interesting and helps point the way for future studies.

This testing was done in driving simulators. Subjects reaction times varied from 0.87 seconds to as much as 3.17 seconds. Again, that is in a simulator when the test subject was told to expect something. Other studies have shown mean reaction times of 2 seconds or more.

Let’s use the 2 second number, though it may be much higher. At 65 MPH a vehicle would travel nearly 200 feet in that time. A lot can happen in 200 feet when approaching or adjacent to a work zone. So clearly disengagements should occur in advance of the work zone giving drivers time to acclimate themselves to the situation around them. For the next 20+ years many of the vehicles passing through work zones will turn control over to the driver. So rather than try to deal with those within the confines of the work zone, lets’ just automatically turn control over to drivers before they enter it. That will provide a more predictable hand-off in a safer environment.

This study was just their first attempt. As more data is collected and as terminology becomes better defined and as testing ventures into more “real world” scenarios, we will learn much more. We look forward to future reports from RISA2S and other AV research organizations.

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.