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Innovators improve work zone safety through automation at VT Transportation Institute

Innovators improve work zone safety through automation at VT Transportation Institute

BLACKSBURG—A future with safer roadway work zones is here, thanks to innovations developed through Virginia Tech Transportation Institute’s Division of Technology Implementation.

Attendees of DRIVE SMART Virginia’s Distracted Driving Summit in Blacksburg in September toured VTTI’s facilities to learn about solutions developed to reduce roadway crashes and fatalities.

Will Vaughan, a VTTI research associate, explained how the Automated Truck-Mounted Attenuator protects highway workers. It’s a mobile crash cushion barrier that extends backward, absorbing impact and smoothly redirecting crashes.

According to the National Work Zone Safety Information Clearing House, there were 28 fatalities in Virginia work zones in 2021, and 956 fatalities nationally.

“Unfortunately, in Virginia, these vehicles are hit about once every three weeks, and there have been two fatalities in the last month,” Vaughan said. “That’s due to distracted driving—motorists plowing into these things without slowing down because they’re not looking ahead. But it’s our goal to get drivers out of those vehicles that tend to get hit in work zones.”

Some contractors are having trouble finding people to operate these vehicles voluntarily, Vaughan continued. “It’s not a matter of if you’re going to get hit, but when, how hard, and will you walk away?”

To address this risk, the division team has established a lead-follow autonomous system for its ATMA.

“We have a package on the trailer hitch receiver of the lead vehicle with computing that will lay down a path for this one to follow, with driverless operation,” Vaughan explained. “The vehicle in front will tell it how far behind to follow, from 50 to 400 feet. Our primary source of navigation is GPS, which follows little breadcrumbs from the lead vehicle, like Hansel and Gretel. The ATMA also can navigate using machine vision when GPS is unavailable.”

The driverless automation features external controls and wireless emergency stop buttons. It also stops and starts moving again once an unexpected object exits its path.

Following testing on VTTI’s high-tech Virginia Smart Roads, Vaughan said they began operating the system on live roads, where it’s performing well.

As manufacturers express interest in commercial versions of the system, motorists are still urged to do their part.

“Unlike normal road conditions, work zones involve large equipment, traffic pattern changes, lane closures, uneven pavement and workers,” said David Tenembaum, senior actuarial manager with Virginia Farm Bureau Mutual Insurance Co., a DSV partner. “That’s a volatile environment. In a work zone, drivers must obey all traffic safety laws, drive distraction-free, adhere to all signage, and watch for highway workers.”

Media: Contact Vaughan at 540-231-9301; Zachary Doerzaph, executive director of VTTI, at 540-231-1046; or Rich Jacobs, DSV public relations and outreach manager, at 804-929-6117.