Unmanned Crash Trucks in Work Zones Coming Soon
Thanks to support from the state Department of Transportation, driverless work trucks are set to make their debut at high-traffic construction work zones in Florida later this year, in pilot program that will likely be closely watched by many safety professionals. The purpose of these trucks is to make work zones safer. Based on statistics, transportation accidents are the most common source of worker injuries nationwide, and it is believed that anything that can be done to eliminate risk is a net plus when it comes to protecting workers.
The U.S. military has been employing the same type of technology in unmanned vehicles for years; these trucks use an attenuator, a technology that has been around for more than 30 years, but has been modified to use a combination of remote control technology, GPS and specialized leader/follower programming technology, developed for just this sort of purpose.
Often, protecting workers in a road construction zone involves a trade-off. Putting a flag person out front protects the workers behind them, but it puts the flag person at risk. Likewise, the use of lead crash trucks fitted with attenuators and crash barriers to protect workers who are inspecting a bridge, repaving a road or putting in a sign or traffic lights is one that is in common use in road construction, but these vehicles have always been operated by construction workers. It’s acknowledged that crash trucks have saved thousands of lives over the years, by protecting workers and other trucks working behind them, but the crash truck drivers are essentially sitting ducks, creating a diversion and waiting to be struck by another vehicle.
By eliminating the driver from those vehicles, it is believed that even more lives will be saved. In addition to the crash truck drivers themselves being removed from the equation, driverless vehicles may take a lot of human error out of the equation, which could further improve the safety of other workers in a road construction zone.
Just last week, the Pennsylvania company that is leading the way in developing these vehicles held a demonstration at a Bethlehem, Pennsylvania municipal pool. As a lead truck sent information to the crash truck's attenuator, the crash truck perfectly mimicked the lead truck's movements, including its speed, movements and braking.
The technology looks promising, but it’s hard to know whether this will work, and it’s also right to question what liability issues may come up. It’s just too early to tell if driverless vehicles are actually safer, or if they simply add a new dimension of risk. Google recently released some data showing that the biggest danger to its driverless cars seems to be coming from human drivers, but we're still in the early test stages of the driverless car era; we'll have to see if they're safer.