It’s better to be safe

Driverless technology holds more promise in work zones

Blog Entry September 09, 2015
Bill Wilson

Bill Wilson is the editorial director of ROADS & BRIDGES magazine and has been covering the industry since 1999. He has won seven Robert F. Boger Awards for editorial excellence, including three in 2011. He also was the creator of the Top 10, Contractor's Choice Awards and Recycling Awards platforms, as well as ROADS & BRIDGES Live.

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What if I hit a rock?
 
The tiniest of pebbles would have the knockout effect of a Fred Flintstone boulder—the kind that required the lifting power of a giant brontosaurus. 
 
This is the fear that prevented me from letting go of the handlebars on my bike for more than 30 seconds when I was a kid. I liked all of my teeth where they were—fully embedded in pink gums. 
 
The Michigan Department of Transportation, however, is giving the no-hands movement a jump-start. Well, at least if you own a 2017 Cadillac CTS. The agency installed its first round of sensors and cameras along 20 miles of I-96 and I-696 in the Detroit area. This smart system will be able to communicate with cars out on the road—well, the 2017 Cadillac CTS type of cars—to help drivers avoid construction and traffic, and deal with weather hazards. It will be the longest stretch of driverless technology in the country—as long as you are driving that stretch in a 2017 Cadillac CTS.
 
The sensors work by collecting information such as vehicle location, speed and driving habits from vehicles—or in this case one type of vehicle—that are connected to the network.
 
It’s the start of hands-free driving as we know it, but it might take a while before anything comes of it. I have addressed this subject on this page before, but just to summarize two key points: 
 

This technology requires an investment from cities, towns and states to purchase the sensors and prepare the highway to meet the line of communication; and

You will have to have all of the automakers, including Toyota and Honda, on the same wavelength. Earlier work revealed Japanese and U.S. cars cannot talk to each other.
 
There are pipe dreams, and then there are the pitches that are right down the pipe. Royal Truck & Equipment made its point loud and clear in late August when it demonstrated driverless technology with a truck-mounted attenuator. Here’s how it worked: A lead truck sent information to the driverless attenuator truck. The two vehicles looped around a parking lot, with the attenuator truck copying various maneuvers of the lead truck. 
 
As a safety mechanism, attenuators have saved hundreds of lives over the years. However, some drivers are killed when the attenuator is struck. Driverless technology puts everyone out of harm’s way.
 
Two autonomous vehicles like the one demonstrated by Royal Truck & Equipment will be on-site in the state of Florida by the end of this year. This is the type of driverless glory state DOTs should be throwing money at over the next decade. Keep your 17 sensors and cameras mounted on polls along the interstate waiting for that one 2017 Cadillac CTS to drive by and give me 50 of these vehicles. I would rather save a life than strip the inconvenience from thousands of others. 
 
Sometimes humans are attracted to the flashy promise of a new invention, and invest all their time and money into making it a reality. If driverless technology can be used now as a bulletproof work-zone tool, then it’s time to take our eyes off the big prize that may not happen for decades. Unless, of course, everyone goes out and buys a Cadillac CTS and moves to Detroit. R&B

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