The first driverless vehicle to hit U.S. highways is going to be a truck, not a car. And it should begin rolling around construction sites in Florida later this year.
Developed by Royal Truck & Equipment, a specialty vehicle manufacturer based near Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, the trucks will be fitted with special devices, called attenuators, designed to protect workers as well as motorists trying to navigate through temporary work zones.
While other companies, including Google, are developing driverless cars, their tests so far have been conducted with a driver in the car, ready to take control of the vehicle in the event of an emergency. Royal will be the first to test its vehicle without an operator in the cab.
Attenuators are designed to provide a rolling crash barrier, but while that can save construction workers, as well as motorists, they put at risk the people that drive the trucks. So, Royal Truck has developed a system that can be operated autonomously.
"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," said Robert Roy, president of Royal Truck.
While it's common to use a truck with warning lights to guide motorists around a rolling work zone, such as a pothole patching crew, motorists occasionally fail to react in time and can slam into the truck. That's where attenuators come in. They are fitted with a portable crash barrier that can reduce injuries to a motorist and have been credited with cutting work-zone injuries and fatalities from rear-end crashes nearly in half, according to a new study by the Journal of the Transportation Research Board.
"Connected and autonomous vehicles in general are viewed as the future of surface transportation, and this technology may be one of the first ways in which it gets commercialized," study author Gerald Ullman, of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, told the Associated Press.
Most major automakers, as well as upstart Tesla Motors and tech giant Google, are working on autonomous vehicle technology. Tesla expects to launch its Pilot system later this year allowing motorists to drive hands-free on well-marked highways. Nissan has promised to have its first fully autonomous vehicle in production by 2020.
Meanwhile, Daimler AG's Freightliner subsidiary recently demonstrated its first semi-autonomous 18-wheeler, a prototype 70,000-pound truck that, like the Tesla Model S, is capable of driving hands-free on well-marked roads.
The general consensus is that autonomous technology will initially require a motorist to remain behind the wheel of a vehicle, ready to take control in an emergency. But the attenuator truck developed by Royal would be completely unmanned.
Royal's system was developed in cooperation with Micro Systems Inc., a Florida firm that is already supplying unmanned vehicles to the military. The autonomous attenuator truck uses a lead-and-follow system. In a demonstration, it closely mimicked the movements of another truck that would operate at the head of a convoy.
The first of the autonomous attenuator trucks is expected to go into operation in Florida later this year as part of a pilot program run by the state's transportation department.
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