PennDOT to Test Autonomous Vehicles in Work Zones

Pennsylvania DOT recently won a $8.4 million dollar grant from FHWA to begin testing autonomous vehicles in work zones. The story by Ed Blazina ran last Wednesday in the Pittsburg Post-Gazette. And he shows a real understanding of the problem when he writes, “one driving circumstance that almost all of the companies have avoided so far is driving through work zones. That’s because those areas don’t provide the regular pattern self-driving vehicles thrive on and have out-of-the-norm items such as construction barrels and lane markings that aren’t as distinctive as on regular roads.”

The award was the largest of eight grants handed out by Secretary Chao to study the safety of autonomous vehicles. This is significant as it demonstrates recognition of the importance of work zone safety at the highest levels at DOT.

PennDOT doesn’t believe any one solution will solve the problem. So, they proposed to approach the problem from a variety of angles including, “detailed mapping systems, communications systems between work-zone equipment and self-driving vehicles, and coatings for barrels and road surfaces to help self-driving vehicles recognize conditions.”

The story made no mention of automated work zone reporting, but that may be part of the “communications…between work-zone equipment and self-driving vehicles.”

In their 25 page application PennDOT stated they will start with computer simulations then move to a closed track for the second phase of testing. Once their concepts are proven they will then test them out in real-world work zones.

They will be working with a nine member team including Carnegie Mellon and PPG Paints.

Work Zone Data Initiative Activity Update

The Work Zone Data Initiative (WZDI) was created to gather best practices, educate practitioners, and move everyone to more standardized methods of data collection and analysis for work zones. This has included the development of a data dictionary, standard data elements and formats, and much more. The FHWA Work Zone Management Program recently published their quarterly newsletter detailing the progress made in this area. Learn more HERE.

Download the Work Zone Activity Data Needs & Opportunities report HERE.

This report was produced by Jerry Ullman and Melisa Finley of TTI. It looks at the benefits we can expect from more consistent data collection. In particular, local and state agencies, private data consumers, and contractors will all be able to compare projects, work zone impact mitigation strategies, and work zone design to find the safest, most efficient methods in any given situation. The benefits will be significant.

But there are many challenges as well. Currently work zone data collection in inconsistent due both to varying practices from one agency to the next and to a lack of funding. Getting to the point where everyone collects data on all work zones and in the same format will be a formidable undertaking.

And the richness of the data will make it even more complex. Consider the proposed elements for just this one item:

This will not be easy. But the rewards in reduced crashes and improved operational efficiency demand that we move forward. Perhaps we might start with a few “standard” elements such as location, dates, and measures of the temporary reductions in capacity as a way of demonstrating what can be done. Once consumers of this data get a taste, they will demand additional elements. And it will then be much easier to cost justify the effort.

Safety First For Automated Driving

We were recently given a copy of “Safety First For Automated Driving 2019”. It is an attempt by a consortium of AV stakeholders to standardize and formalize the validation and verification of testing for AV systems. It was authored by representatives from Aptiv, Audi, Baidu, BMW, Continental, Fiat-Chrysler, HERE, Infineon, Intel, and Volkswagen, so a good cross-section of the different players in this industry. A copy can be found here.

 

 

 

 

There is a lot to this document. We won’t attempt to cover it in any detail. But there are three areas of particular interest to those of us in the work zone safety world:

  • The hand-off of vehicle control from the automated system to the operator.
  • Fail safe procedures when the system encounters something it does not expect or understand.
  • The importance of an accurate, real-time digital map.

VEHICLE-INTITATED HANDOVER

The moment the system recognizes that the conditions it “sees” are not the same as what were expected at that location, “the system shall react to compensate or shall issue a driver takeover request with a sufficient time frame for the takeover.” If the vehicle operator is unable to take control for any reason the system must initiate a fail-safe maneuver.

FAIL-SAFE PROCEDURES

“The automated driving system shall recognize system limits, especially those that do not allow the safe transition of control to the vehicle operator, and react to minimize the risk.” In the event something unexpected is encountered and when it is dangerous or impossible to hand control to the operator, the system has three options:

Comfort Stop:

This sounds similar to the vehicle pulling over when safe and parking out of the travelled way.

Safe Stop:

This would involve somewhat harder braking and the end of operation may be off the road or potentially could occur while still in a live lane.

Emergency Stop: Just like you locked up the brakes when traffic suddenly stops in front of you. There is no time to do anything else. This would leave the vehicle in the live lane. But we assume the condition causing it would be apparent to the other drivers, as well, so they would likely stop, too.

IMPORTANCE OF ACCURATE MAPS

The report states this clearly, “Failures relating to planned road changes can be avoided by incorporating road change plans from a road authority into the map updating process.” This, of course, requires real-time updates to the data. Like most people outside of our industry, they assume perfect knowledge by the DOT. But as you know, most “road change plans” are often wrong. Many contractors file provisional traffic control plans. Start and end dates change, weather delays the work, etc.

Now it was not within the scope of this document to address the how, just the why. It is up to us to find the most efficient ways to update maps in real-time. But they did recognize the need, and they also felt it was important that everyone have access to the same information. “as indispensable public information, road construction and maintenance plans should be fully transparent and easily accessible by all map providers.”

They also addressed the need to find out when the maps are wrong and to learn from those incidents.  “Errors as a result of real-world changes are difficult to monitor and control, thus they should be carefully analyzed.” Our industry will need access to the data so that we can optimize the ways in which our systems define and report road changes.

Finally, they reiterate the importance of accurate, real-time information, “an effective mechanism for map updating or maintenance is critically important” (emphasis added).  We are happy to see they recognize the need, but they don’t understand how to accomplish that: “A map updating or maintenance platform that comprises sensor data collected from multiple inputs, including but not limited to survey car fleets, massively deployed intelligent vehicles (e.g. vehicles with the ability to collect sensor data), high resolution satellite images and/or road infrastructures with surveillance sensors, can effectively detect the random road changes and lower the risk of random RMA failures.”

The good news is that they recognize the same AV safety issues we have. The bad news is that they do not understand work zone reporting. They believe agencies have perfect knowledge. Any gaps in that knowledge they still think can be filled by probe vehicles gathering and reporting changes as they are encountered. While that will help in some regards, work zones must be automatically reported by the people or equipment doing the work. No other method changes the maps accurately and the moment the lane is closed or reopened.

FHWA Seeks Pilot Sites for Work Zone Data Framework

 

In the Spring Edition of the FHWA Work Zone Management Program newsletter, they included a notice saying the FHWA Work Zone Data Initiative is looking for state agencies willing to use the Initiative’s  new work zone data framework to collect, process and share data.

This initiative is important for a number of reasons, but primarily because until we have a national standard saying what data should be collected and how it should be stored and shared, we will not be able to compare work zone safety and efficiency from state to state. Every state truly is different, but by opening these doors each state will be able to learn what they do especially well, and where they might improve.

Todd Peterson is the FHWA manager for this project and we encourage states to talk with him to learn more about this effort and how they might get involved. But let’s take this a step further.

If you are a state agency who is already working with Connected Work Zone systems please, PLEASE get involved in the initiative.  The Work Zone Data Initiative is working to identify what data should be collected. If you are already working with Connected Work Zones you have a wealth of data at your fingertips. And if you have been doing it very long, you already have a good idea of what is valuable and what is less so.

Most states don’t know what is available. They have their own databases and not much else. So, we need your participation to be sure those types of data are included. You also have some experience with the format or formats for that data, and you may be able to offer good advice on the best one for this application.

This effort has been many years in the making. It would be a shame if it is done without your help. We might even have to scrap this new framework and start over if we don’t get it right the first time. Call or write Todd Peterson today. And learn more about the Work Zone Data Initiative by clicking on the links.

Common Mistakes in Work Zone ITS Lessons Learned During 20 Years in This Field

Today, we would like to discuss common mistakes agencies make when including work zone ITS in a project. But we don’t want to scare anyone away or make this more difficult than it really is. Today, work zone ITS is easy to use, easy to contract, and easy to evaluate. So please dive in and learn your own lessons as you go along.

But with that said, there are a few bits of advice we can offer from our many years deploying these systems.

The first is simple enough. Before you specify a system in a project, identify and clearly state your agency’s goal for that system. Is it end-of-queue crash reduction? Is it diverting traffic onto alternate routes? Is it speed reduction? You and every other decision maker in your agency need to agree on the primary goal, and then communicate that goal to the system supplier through your specifications.

Second, don’t try to do too much with your system. Focus on that primary goal first. If the system supplied can also handle additional responsibilities, then add those that help you meet any secondary goals. For example, a queue detection system can also provide traffic data to meet the Federal Work Zone Safety & Mobility rule. But don’t add features that will just bombard you with data you can’t use. You will have plenty to work with as it is.

Once you have your goal for the project, you can begin designing your system. If the goal is reducing rear-end crashes in slow and stopped traffic, doplar radar is the best sensor to use. It works well at low speeds and is inexpensive. But if your goal is to replace a permanent system that measures speeds, counts and classifications, a side-fire radar such as Wavetronix or RTMS.

Next choose your sensor locations. For most systems you will space them about three-quarters of a mile apart. You may get away with as much as a mile or more in some situations, but more often you will want them between a half-mile and a mile apart. Once they are in place and collecting data, check that data to be sure it is what you need. Locations with a lot of concrete barrier sometimes result in radar echo giving you false results. Locations such as a gore point at the on-ramp from a truck scales will result in below-average speeds as trucks slowly speed up onto the mainline.

Budgets often force you to limit the scope of your system. If it comes down to a choice between cameras or more sensors, please consider maximizing the number of sensors. Better, richer data will result in a more responsive system, and one less susceptible to service interruptions. If you must have cameras, limit their use and the video frame-rate to keep your wireless expenses lower.

Your specifications should include the type and quantity of sensors, message signs, camera trailers and other devices. And consider including a line item for each type of device. In that way, you will have a price if you find you need to increase or decrease the quantity of devices.

Finally, dig into your data. Learn what makes the system work. When an incident happens, look at the data to learn how quickly it affected traffic upstream. And how quickly it clears once the cause has been corrected. This will give you a better sense of the capabilities of these systems and how best to use them on future projects.

Alternative Funding for Work Zone ITS Fact Sheet

Nearly everyone who understands work zone ITS knows it is a cost-effective way of mitigating the traffic impacts of major and sometimes even minor road construction projects. Studies have proven the value of these systems. But DOTs will often tell you they don’t have the funding to pay for it.  The FHWA encourages states to use work zone ITS. They will pay for these systems through conventional construction funding. So, when states say they don’t have the funding they mean they haven’t found a pot of money outside of the money they use for asphalt and concrete.

FHWA wants to address that problem. They have just published the “Alternative Funding for Work Zone ITS Fact Sheet”. In it they document how Illinois uses HSIP funds to pay for Work Zone ITS. Download a copy of the fact sheet HERE.

FHWA says this is a highly underutilized funding mechanism. According to the fact sheet, “While some states use HSIP funds for work zone purposes, many state DOTs do not tap into this resource. Out of the more than 4,000 HSIP projects referenced in the 2016 HSIP National Summary Report, only 13 were work zone-related projects.”

Work Zone ITS Blog addressed the efforts of Matthew Daeda and Illinois DOT on May 12, 2016. We told you that this contracting method offers several advantages:

  1. The state only pays when the system is needed.
  2. They work directly with the vendor and that greatly improves communication.
  3. Staff has direct access to the system data and to make changes.
  4. By bidding for each district local companies are more likely to win, thus reducing response time.

 

This fact sheet is a BIG deal! States are always saying they don’t have the funding. This is one way of getting it. And the Feds aren’t just allowing this. They are encouraging states to use HSIP funds for work zone ITS.

States do need to identify work zone safety as a SHSP Focus Area and provide the data to support that decision. According to the National Work Zone Safety Information Clearinghouse, there were 799 fatalities in US work zones in 2017, up from the previous three-year average of 764. That’s not much when compared to the total roadway fatalities of 37,133.

But work zones are always a safety issue. States can and should include them in their Strategic Highway Safety Plans (SHSP) for a variety of reasons. Work zones force drivers to process more information and react faster than they normally do outside of work zones. That’s why crashes attributable to distracted driving, speeding, aggressive driving, and impaired driving often show up first in work zones. Furthermore, solutions that work in work zones may have applications elsewhere.

In 2017 overall fatalities declined nationally while work zone fatalities increased. Any state with this same disparity should include work zones in the SHSP. Many states have recently increased funding for road construction. They, too, will unfortunately see an associated increase in work zone fatalities. And, again, they to should include work zones in their SHSPs.

This is a wonderful tool. Thank you to Todd Peterson and Jawad Paracha for putting it together. Now we all just need to get his in front of the decision makers in our states!

 

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.