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.