How Technology Is Causing Crashes:
Construction zones are already prone to accidents due to human error, but now accidents due to technological errors are posing new threats to highway construction workers. Self-driving cars are being introduced by some of the largest car manufacturers across the world, but construction zones are proving to be danger zones for these autonomous cars. Why? Because highway lanes in construction areas are constantly changing and shifting. The unpredictable nature of highway construction is creating an unsafe work conditions that construction workers cannot control or prevent.
Technology companies can easily code for traffic in a static environment, but because of the ever-changing nature of construction zones, coding can be quite difficult. When cones replace double yellow lines, bollards are used instead of curbs, and hand signals outweigh traffic lights and signs, autonomous cars get “confused”. There are cues on the highway that the self-driving cars can read such as mile markers, speed limit signs, stop signs, etc., but when construction signs are introduced, the cues are not as clear. There is no standard cue system for construction zones, so coders have had difficulty perfecting the code for those areas. Jerry Ullman, a research engineer specializing in work zones at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute says:
“Work zones are so dynamic, so site-specific in a lot of cases, that it’s really difficult to try
to write a code to tell the vehicle, ‘When you see this, do this,’”
Studies have been conducted about which types of incidences require self-driving car users to take control most often, and according to one study, construction zones are the number one reason. This could be attributed to the lack of updated state and local DOT databases. If these databases were updated in real-time, autonomous cars could avoid trouble areas altogether.
A couple possible solutions have been proposed, but they will require a lot of work and testing. The cars that pose the highest threat are the cars that don’t have steering wheels or brake pedals or if someone is physically unable to operate the car in an emergency. For these instances, companies are talking about opening call centers that would help these cars navigate around the construction zones. Nissan is pushing for this type of solution. The company is not claiming that its self-driving cars are perfect, so it will employ real humans in call centers to help the cars navigate through difficult areas like construction zones. This is possible through the use of built-in sensors and cameras for guidance.
Another proposed solution uses a short-range communication technology that allows cars to alert other cars of hazards ahead. Or there would be broadcasting beacons that alert cars of what lies ahead. According to Wired, “the National Highway Safety Administration plans to mandate that all new cars come equipped with this ‘talking’ tech by 2020.” The technology system, however, still needs to undergo extensive testing in order to be installed in all self-driving cars.
As more self-driving cars are being introduced into the market, it is becoming increasingly important to make sure that they are reliable, especially in construction zones. The best way that leaders in the construction industry can help solve the problem is work together to develop standard practices for signs and barricades in highway and road construction areas.