Mother Nature, meet mother of plows

Inspired by tours abroad, alliance digs out of hundreds of snow
and ice removal ideas and creates a super plow

Bill Wilson / December 28, 2000

What will Mother Nature think up next? After several people in the transportation field put their heads together to create a technology maintenance vehicle, it’s her move. Is there anything out there tougher than just snow and ice?

The vehicle certainly could use the challenge. Combining innovations from Asia and Europe, the high-tech snowplow is equipped with as many as eight new features to battle the winter elements.

"The technology on here is to assist the operators and mechanics in doing their job," said John Scharfbillig, maintenance supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDot). "It’s just giving them another tool in their tool box to do their work when they’re out in the field."

Three years ago, a federal scanning tour to Japan and Europe gave a couple engineers an idea. After seeing technological advancements such as on-board data collection first hand, they came back with the motivation to create something bigger and better. An alliance was formed, with Iowa serving as the lead state, and the Concept Vehicle Consortium was created with the purpose of bringing the technology to the U.S. Focus groups consisting of operators, emergency response people, state patrols, dispatchers, supervisors and superintendants were formed, and approximately 600 to 650 ideas were generated and separated into catagories to improve the traditional snowplow. Realizing there wasn’t enough room on the truck for every input, the group picked at least one out of every catagory.

"What probably makes this program successful is it’s a bottom-up driven program," said Scharfbillig. "It’s not being driven by the upper management, the operators are having a lot of say of what we’re doing in the program, so it is actually being refined based on their input. It’s basically all levels crossing."

MnDot had its maintenance technolgy vehicle on display at this year’s North American Snow Conference held in Duluth, Minn. The truck featured eight new advances, including an auto vehicle logger, an incremental power port and a material application system. Scharfbillig, however, believes no plow will ever carry all the gadgets, just bits and pieces suitable for the type of snow removal for a certain region.

"You won’t ever see a truck quite like this," said Scharfbillig. "But parts of it are beginning to come into the actual fleets as a standard option based on some of the results that came out of this concept vehicle."

According to Scharfbillig, two of the most impressive features are the auto vehicle logger and the surface and air temperature sensor.

Utilizing the Global Positioning System (GPS), the vehicle logger, located in the cab of the truck, can track all material used during operation as well as log engine running time, braking and information from sensors. It can also transmit information about location of trucks and data to dispatch other vehicles out on the road.

The surface and air temperature sensor measures how cold it is on the pavement and 5 ft above the ground, assisting the operator and on-board computers on the application of chemicals.

"We have instituted (air temperature sensors) state wide as a standard for bringing that into our fleet because when we have the temperature on there the operators can know whether or not to use liquids, to pre-wet their materials or to do anti-icing. It also supplies the operator the proper time and proper rate of application."

Other cab components are a controller for a material application system and a controller for all hydraulic systems on the truck. The material application system controller supplies information on the quantity and rates materials are being applied, and can send it to the trip master for logging purposes.

The material application system is located on the back of the truck, along with a friction meter. In the material application system, all brine, anti-icing chemicals, sand and salt are carried in separate boxes. By combining operator experience with reports from the friction meter and the surface and air temperature sensor, the most effective mix is applied to the surface.

The friction meter measures the friction between the tires and the road.

In an effort to improve safety, fiber-optic lighting can be installed. The light, mounted above the cab, can cut through snow clouds and whiteout conditions, and its primary purpose is as a warning system for other motorists.

An incremental power port allows as much as 30 additional hp to be delivered on demand, and is expected to save fuel and reduce emissions.

"We’re definitely heading in the right direction as far as snow removal goes," said Scharfbillig.

And they’re going in the right direction with a full head of speed. A second generation vehicle in Minnesota, developed under the Intelligent Vehicle Initiative of the federal government, is already in the works. The prized piece on this truck is a heads-up display unit that is operated by GPS. During adverse conditions, the unit puts a screen on the windshield which actually shows the edge stripes on the road and overhead obstacles. It will also be equipped with radar detection so operators will know if a vehicle or obstruction is in the way. Rear collision detection will alert the driver if an object is going to strike the vehicle from the rear.

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