Driverless Vehicles Provide Moving Shield for Highway Maintenance Workers

Safety, whether from eliminating human error or by removing people from dangerous situations, has been a strong motivator for much of the work being done on autonomous vehicles. This trend continues and will remain a top factor in the adoption of driverless technologies. Most recently, the safety of roadway maintenance crews is the purpose of a new driverless vehicle.

In August, the Colorado Department of Transportation unveiled a driverless vehicle designed to protect roadway maintenance crews by putting itself between human workers and any errant vehicles that might cross into the work zone. The new vehicle, called an Autonomous Impact Protection Vehicle (AIPV), is scheduled to be deployed this year and has special crash-mitigating equipment just like traditional impact protection vehicles, but it also has the benefit of not requiring a member of the work crew to be behind the wheel.

In a press release on August 18, 2017, Shailen Bhatt, Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) Executive Director, is quoted as saying, “Just in the last four years, there have been 26 incidents where a member of the traveling public struck a CDOT impact protection vehicle…This is a dangerously high number when you consider that in some instances, a CDOT employee is sitting in the driver’s seat of the vehicle that was hit. By using self-driving technology, we’re able to take the driver out of harm’s way while still effectively shielding roadside workers.”

Automation is just one of several emerging technologies that are transforming how highway maintenance is done. As part of a national initiative, the Midwest Transportation Workforce Center is currently exploring this sector by looking at the changing skill and competency requirements of highway maintenance workers in response to advancements in areas like vehicle automation, information systems, and sensing technologies. Through this initiative, MTWC is working to establish career pathways in the Highway Maintenance Engineering discipline to ensure that the discipline will be able to attract and retain the creative and skilled problem solvers that will be needed.

While the CDOT autonomous safety vehicle is the first of its kind, other states will soon follow. Missouri Department of Transportation just released a request for proposals on January 5th for a similar vehicle system with the goal, “to avoid operator injury by eliminating the need for a human operator in the [Follow Truck].”

Safety through eliminating human operators is not a new concept. Military vehicles have been under development for some time, utilizing the same technologies now being put to use in civil settings. Two months ago, Lockheed Martin announced progress testing their Autonomous Mobility Applique System (AMAS), having logged more than 55,000 testing miles over recent months.

The company’s press release explained that the AMAS system provides semi-autonomous leader/follower capability. Benefits, according to the release include that the system, “reduces manpower needs for convoy operations, freeing Soldiers up for other tasks and removing them from exposure to Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and other enemy activity while on resupply missions.”

As a country, we entrust highway maintenance workers with a great deal of responsibility. Today’s highway maintenance workers are responsible for keeping the infrastructure in a state of good repair and at the same time keeping the adjacent air, soil, wildlife, plant life and water clean and healthy. It is only fitting that new technologies be implemented to protect the well-being of this important workforce.