If you see an attenuator driving through a Florida road construction zone with no one in the cab sometime soon, don’t worry. You just might be seeing the first autonomous TMA, or truck mounted attenuator, at work.
Royal Truck & Equipment Inc. of Coopersburg, Pennsylvania, is currently at work to deploy the first driverless TMA truck on a one-year pilot test program in Florida.
When the road construction industry began using rolling crash barriers, work zone injuries and fatalities from rear-end crashes were slashed by half, according to the Journal of the Transportation Research Board.
Although the crash barrier can save construction workers and motorists, the person driving the truck is at risk. So, Royal Truck & Equipment Inc., the largest manufacturer of TMA trucks in the U.S., has developed an autonomous TMA truck, or ATMA truck.
“Our truck, built to meet all work zone safety requirements, is intended to absorb the impact of a high (or low) speed crash, decrease damage made to the vehicle, and save workers’ lives,” Royal’s President Robert Roy said. “Over the years, we have learned to never settle for a design. Royal is committed to constant improvement, which means our best truck is always the next one we build.”
Royal’s ATMA Truck is outfitted with an electro-mechanical system and integrated sensor suite that gives the truck the ability to follow a lead vehicle completely unmanned. It can also be driven normally and remote controlled. Currently, the ATMA is programmed to follow the leader on its own, but additional sensors can be added to give the vehicle greater situational awareness, including obstacle avoidance radar, LIDAR and more.
“The beauty of the system is that it is expandable to offer as much or as little capability as the application calls for,” Maynard Factor, business development manager at Micro Systems, Inc., said
To develop the ATMA, Royal Truck & Equipment Inc. partnered with Florida-based Micro Systems Inc., a Kratos Defence company. MSI has already been involved in deploying this technology in the U.S. military to automate vehicles used as targets for gunnery training and weapons evaluation, and ultimately, to remove soldiers from dangerous situations during the transportation of supplies from base to base in contested areas. Now, with Royal, MSI is adapting the technology to the road construction industry.
Although other self-driving cars are in development by Google, Tesla Motors and others, the ATMA has a few unique qualities.
First of all, Royal will be able to convert existing vehicles into unmanned or optionally manned systems, which will save their customers money.
“The Google car, Tesla, and other commercially available vehicles are built from the ground up with power steering systems, electronic braking systems, electronic transmission, etc.,” Roy said.
“The system we offer can be used by someone who already has a standard driven vehicle, but needs to upgrade it for an unmanned application.”
Secondly, the ATMA will be tested without an operator behind the steering wheel. It will be tested instead with just a passenger in the truck cab. Other driverless cars have been tested with a driver in the vehicle, able to take control in the event of an emergency. For example, Tesla’s Pilot system, which is expected to launch later this year, will allow motorists to drive hands-free on well-marked highways.
But what is perhaps the most significant difference between consumer self-driving cars and the ATMA is the regulatory environment of each situation.
“Royal Truck and Micro Systems are getting so much world-wide support for the kick-off of the first pilot program, because is it rumored that this will be the fastest way to legalize this technology,” Roy said. Because the truck will operate in work zones only—rather than travel 70 mph with other cars—it’s likely that this technology will be adopted quicker than driverless cars for the general consumer.
Gerald Ullman of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute told the Associated Press that the ATMA could very likely be the first technology of its kind to get commercialized. Although both Royal and MSI look forward to the adoption of this technology, Factor said, “We are leveraging our experience in deployment of new technology and incorporating a ‘crawl, walk, run’ mindset.”
“Our goal is to help save lives in work zones,” Roy said. “If Google and Tesla are removing drivers in vehicles to help decrease distracted driving accidents, then we are very similar.”
Cutting Through Red Tape
Although there are a number of DOTs nationwide that are interested in this technology, one of the biggest hurdles Royal has had to overcome to introduce the ATMA to new states is that many states don’t have legislation in place for the operation of unmanned vehicles on roadways.
Florida is one of only six states, also including California, Michigan, Nevada, North Dakota and Tennessee, with legislation in place to allow unmanned vehicles to operate on public roadways. Washington D.C. also has legislation for unmanned vehicles.
The next step is a one-year test pilot program of the ATMA, said Andrew Roberts, Royal’s strategic account manager. To achieve this, Royal is in negotiations with Florida’s DOT. Royal’s human-driven TMA Truck is already in use in Florida.
“FDOT was very excited to be the first DOT to test this technology,” Roberts said, “and see themselves as a very innovative state when it comes to new initiatives.”
Not only will Royal’s new TMA be autonomous, but it will also be used to capture data regarding what are safe operating speeds, how well the ATMA meets existing TMA requirements, and accident risk mitigation. According to Factor, the ATMA will also capture data about how well the operators interface with the ATMA’s robotic systems, as well as document any system failures and shortfalls.
This data reflects the overarching goal of the potential Florida DOT pilot program: to evaluate the effectiveness of the ATMA in improving safety and reducing costs associated with accidents.
“Operational data obtained during our testing will facilitate the development of proper operation procedures, equipment utilization and legislation for the use of unmanned systems in roadway construction zones,” Factor said. Evaluation criteria will be defined by FDOT, Royal and Micro Systems Inc. and could include work zone injury analysis, accident maps and potential dollars saved. “The evaluation will also determine how well workers interact with robotic systems and how readily they adapt their processes to integrate the technology.”
After Florida allows the ATMA to operate on roadways in closed construction zones, Royal Truck will begin focusing on the next state. Meanwhile, Royal is also looking to grow internationally; the company has been speaking with one of the largest European construction companies about testing the ATMA in their work zones within the next year.
“We feel that the FDOT pilot program will facilitate and catapult these efforts for other DOTs,” Roberts said. “Through testing this technology state-by-state, we will slowly change the way work zones operate in this country, and save lives each step of the way.”
“At the end of the day, our industry needs awareness,” Roy said. “Drivers need to know more about work zones, why to slow down, and that men and women are dying every day in our work zones. If autonomous technology regulations pass, after testing is done, then the industry will see a shift to a safer work zone, and increased awareness, and education to the general public.”