Autonomous Vehicles Ready to Hit the Road

In the not-too-distant future, autonomous vehicles will be used routinely on roadway projects throughout the country. The technology is starting to be put in place, and autonomous vehicles are being tested to gauge their efficacy and determine if they are indeed ready to hit the road.

A 2015 study published by Iowa State University’s Center for Earthworks Engineering Research maintains autonomous vehicle technology is advancing quickly and being widely accepted by state roadway agencies.

The use of autonomous and robotically controlled road-building equipment has the potential to enhance safety, efficiency and consistency of quality. According to the study, the use of such equipment can help reduce construction costs across the country, currently upward of $180 billion a year.

Still, some challenges need to be addressed before robotic and co-robotic (machines and humans working together) technologies become widespread in roadway construction. As a result, the impact of autonomous and robotic-guided equipment on productivity and safety need to be examined, quantified, and a detailed process-control structure formulated. Research shows technology advancements with sensors, wireless data communication, big-data analytics, and information visualization are setting the stage for a whole new generation of road-building equipment.

Royal Truck & Equipment is one company that has recognized the value of autonomous vehicles in the construction industry and is moving forward with development.

The company in August 2015 introduced the ATMA (autonomous truck-mounted attenuator) truck, which the company says is designed to save lives in the work zone. The vehicle was created specifically for roadway construction projects. Built to meet work zone safety requirements, it is intended to absorb the impact of a high-speed or low-speed crash, decrease damage to the vehicle, and save workers’ lives. Royal Truck & Equipment developed the truck in partnership with Micro Systems Inc., a developer of unmanned vehicle control systems.

The ATMA is outfitted with an electro-mechanical system and fully integrated sensor suite that enables a leader/follower capability that allows the ATMA to follow a lead vehicle completely unmanned.

“Any time a driver can be removed from these vehicles in a very dangerous situation, and if the vehicle's struck, there's nobody inside of it to receive the damage or the injuries, that’s measuring success,” says Rob Roy, president, Royal Truck & Equipment.

Operation of the ATMA is conducted in a configuration called leader/follower, which is designed to replicate real-world operation. The configuration includes a human-driven leader vehicle, followed by an unmanned follower vehicle—the ATMA. The lead vehicle is outfitted with a NAV module that is strapped to the roof. The NAV module contains a GPS (global positioning system) receiver, system computer, digital compass, and a transceiver.

It transmits GPS position data called “eCrumbs” back to the follower vehicle, which uses the data to follow the exact path and speed of the leader vehicle at each point along the route. The NAV Module can be unstrapped and removed from one vehicle and installed on another if a different leader vehicle is required.

The nascent technology has yet to gain significant traction in the construction market, but that could change as more companies become aware of its advantages.

“We haven’t heard a lot about autonomous vehicles on the jobsite,” says

Jerry Ullman, senior research engineer and program manager at Texas A&M University’s Transportation Institute, adds that it eventually will be a sought-after technology, especially because it offers staffing advantages and cost savings. “It has some advantages,” he says.

However, Ullman adds, it likely will require some time for autonomous vehicles to gain widespread acceptance among construction companies and departments of transportation. “One of the first things will be to convince people that it does work,” Ullman says.

Indeed, contractors have several concerns when it comes to autonomous vehicles including cost, safety, security, and legal issues, if an accident occurred.

“What happens if the communications system get disrupted,” Ullman says. “It’s going to take some testing.” He expects the autonomous trucks to gain momentum once a few construction companies or departments of transportation decide to use them. “Departments of transportation tend to be risk adverse,” he says.

Komatsu Ltd. also understands the value of autonomous vehicles at jobsites.

An AHS (autonomous haulage system) jointly developed by Komatsu Ltd., Komatsu America Corp., and Modular Mining Systems Inc., is a comprehensive fleet-management system designed for mines. The dump trucks, which are equipped with vehicle controllers, a high-precision GPS, an obstacle-detection system, and a wireless network system, are operated and controlled via a supervisory computer, enabling them to be unmanned.

Information on target course and speed is sent wirelessly from the supervisory computer to the driverless dump trucks, while the GPS is used to ascertain their position. When loading, the dump trucks are automatically guided to the loading spot after computing the position of the bucket of the GPS-fitted hydraulic excavator or wheel loader. The supervisory computer also sends information on a specific course to the dumping spot.

The AHS also offers safety advantages. For example, the fleet-control system prevents collisions with other dump trucks, service vehicles, or other equipment. In case an obstacle detection system detects another vehicle or person inside the hauling course under the AHS operation, the vehicles will reduce speed or stop immediately, making the system extremely safe and reliable.

In addition, the AHS enables stable operation under grueling conditions such as at high altitudes or in sparsely populated, arid desert areas. At the same time, by optimizing operations, the system contributes to reducing maintenance costs, conserving energy, and curbing CO2 emissions.

Ullman says Komatsu’s AHS system is an example of addressing staffing challenges through automation. He adds a mining site is the ideal location to use the technology. “Locations and jobs where there is a lot of room onsite and little interference with people, equipment, or other vehicles, such as a mining operation, will certainly be able to embrace and utilize this technology,” Ullman points out.

The AHS, however, may not be well suited for all jobsites, he says. “Risks of using this technology in these applications are lower than they will be for other fields such as a vertical construction or road construction where space is more constrained. I suspect the incremental cost for the technology relative to the total cost of those vehicles is less as well, which probably makes it an easier decision for contractors.”

Autonomous trucks designed for road work represent the technology’s entrance into the construction market, but the vehicles may eventually find their way to other jobsites. Unmanned cement trucks or dump trucks, for example, may help builders save time and money as well as dedicate staff to other tasks.

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