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With the support of a $7.5 million grant, the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute in Blacksburg is addressing an array of automated trucking questions. The goal of the research is to help trucking companies use self-driving technologies safely and effectively.

When Gottlieb Daimler built the world’s first truck in 1896, the new technology brought a slew of questions. Was buying gasoline easier than feeding a horse that pulls a carriage? What was the right speed limit? How would a truck react to a rut in the road?

Change brings uncertainty. More than 120 years later, the trucking industry is wading through another set of questions tied to the latest wave of technology — self-driving vehicles.

Virginia is driving the automated revolution and search for answers. In March, Daimler purchased a majority stake in Torc Robotics, a Blacksburg-based company co-founded in 2005 by then-Virginia Tech graduate student and current CEO Michael Fleming. In September, the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) was awarded a $7.5 million grant to help establish safety guidelines for trucks with automated driving systems (ADS).

“What we hope to have is something that allows fleets to make informed decisions in specific use cases and understand how they can adopt these technologies,” said Richard Hanowski, director of the Center for Truck and Bus Safety at VTTI, the division that received the grant.

Last month, Daimler and Torc rolled out self-driving trucks on roads in Southwest Virginia. To the average person, that news might conjure an image of a vehicle with a mind of its own rolling along a highway. But Hanowski explained that the automated technologies currently being assessed largely support drivers as they do their job.

In September 2016, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration adopted a set of criteria from the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) to help classify automated technologies. The range is from level 0 (no automation, with the driver conducting all activity) to level 5 (full automation, with the vehicle capable of handling all tasks).

Specific use cases that will be studied by VTTI fall closer to level 2 (partial automation, where the vehicle has automated systems but the driver is still engaged and monitoring the truck) or level 3 (conditional automation, where the driver does not have to monitor the truck but stays ready to take control if needed).

One example is traffic-jam assist technologies, where the ADS takes over during detention time, as drivers inch up through long queues. Another is exit-to-exit scenarios, where drivers hand over interstate travel responsibilities to the ADS, resembling a form of cruise control.

“We’ll be looking at other vehicles, the interaction with the truck and getting a better understanding of that interaction,” Hanowski said.

VTTI’s data collection will be paramount to help inform government rulemaking and assess how regular cars interact with ADS trucking systems. Driver behavior is a factor, as a 2015 NHTSA study found 94% of crashes involved some form of human error. Car drivers might not be familiar with trucks’ blind spots, or inability to brake quickly.

Beyond the implementation of automated systems, Hanowski said the overall self-driving ecosystem still is being figured out. Think of some practical questions. How does a self-driving truck handle a maintenance issue on the road like frozen brakes? What are the insurance implications for a mixed fleet of ADS and regular vehicles? What about inspections in general?

“How do you pull over a truck that has no driver?” Hanowski asked. “That hasn’t really been thought about.”

Just like cobblestones and dirt roads of the 1890s, all interstate highways are not built the same. VTTI aims to grade roadways’ ability to handle ADS technologies so that states understand their readiness and departments of transportation can plan out maintenance needs.

All of these automation issues should be scrutinized. But 2019 sounds a lot like 1896, when our modes of transportation evolved past feeding a horse. We’re pleased to see Virginia businesses and universities take a leading role in answering the toughest automated trucking questions.

Chris Gentilviso

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