PennDOT using $8.4M grant to study automated vehicle performance in highway work zones |

PennDOT using $8.4M grant to study automated vehicle performance in highway work zones

Stephen Huba
Chuck Biedka | Tribune-Review
Crews from Greensburg-based Plum Construction work to replace a bridge that carries Coxcomb Hill Road over Puckety Creek in New Kensington on Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019. PennDOT is participating in a four-year project to improve the performance of automated vehicles in work zones.

Imagine orange barrels in Pittsburgh but without all the attendant nightmare scenarios.

As difficult as that may be, the state Department of Transportation thinks it’s possible.

PennDOT is embarking on a four-year project to improve the performance of automated vehicles in work zones. The project is part of a larger vision to reduce the hazards associated with driving in construction zones.

“The whole concept behind the project is there’s areas where we know automated vehicles struggle — more complex environments — and work zones is a perfect example,” said Mark Kopko, director of the PennDOT Office of Transformational Technology.

On Thursday, PennDOT was awarded an $8.4 million grant by the U.S. Department of Transportation to test the safe integration of automated driving systems into work zones. While there is plenty of automated vehicle testing going on in Allegheny County, this is the first project to test automated vehicles specifically in work zone scenarios, PennDOT said.

In addition to maintaining work zones, PennDOT is the one state agency charged with promulgating standards, practices and guidelines for automated vehicle testing.

“I am thrilled that the efforts of the department and our partners in the realm of automated vehicle technology have received national recognition,” said PennDOT Secretary Leslie S. Richards. “If we can improve how automated vehicles interact with work zones, there will be significant safety benefits for the traveling public.”

Over the four years, PennDOT will work with Carnegie Mellon University and PPG Industries Inc., among other partners, to test automated vehicles in simulated, closed-track and real-life scenarios. Closed-track testing will take place at the Penn State Lawrence Transportation Institute test track in State College, but the exact location of the on-road testing will be determined later in the project.

The on-road testing will be done on a limited-access highway and an urban highway within Pennsylvania.

Carnegie Mellon, a pioneer in the field and one of five authorized testers in Allegheny County, will provide the simulation tool and the automated vehicle, a Cadillac SRX, and will assist with data collection, Kopko said.

“The big thing that’s missing in the industry right now is the sharing of data,” he said.

The project also will rely on PPG coating technology that will be used to improve the visibility of various work zone “artifacts,” such as traffic control devices (cones and barrels), construction workers and construction vehicles.

“These coatings will definitely make (the objects) pop out to the sensors — almost like a hidden message within the work zone,” Kopko said.

Other elements of the project include evaluating the impact of improved connectivity between automated vehicles and work zone artifacts, evaluating the impact of high-definition mapping of work zone artifacts and improving the map information dissemination process from mapping providers, PennDOT said.

Kopko said the goal of the project is to improve motorist and worker safety in construction zones over time by removing, or at least reducing, the human element.

“Ninety-four percent of all crashes are caused by human error,” he said.

But first, automated vehicles must become better at navigating work zones, he said. The complex environment created by barricades, cones, barrels and temporary paint lines continues to be a challenge to automated driving systems, he said.

“Automated vehicle testing in the work zone has remained one of the key gaps in viable research to date, resulting in a glaring weakness of this technology — the inability for automated vehicles to operate in nearly any work zone,” according to the PennDOT grant proposal.

Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Stephen at 724-850-1280, [email protected] or via Twitter .

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