When we hear the phrase 'autonomous vehicles,' the mind often goes to the most advanced version of these things. To many people, a self-driving car is nothing short of an automobile with Level 5 autonomy, one that can navigate urban traffic and around accidents and find the perfect parking spot at a moment's notice. While no version of this car currently exists, plenty of vehicles that are already on our roads do have autonomous features.
Author: Justin Tejada, The Connected Car
Tesla's Autopilot, for example, is likely navigating a car on a highway near you right now in the US, and plenty of automobiles have self-parking features.
But the uses for autonomous vehicles extend far beyond the commercial and consumer realms. The Colorado Department of Transportation recently announced an autonomous vehicle whose primary purpose isn't to move people from one place to another.
Instead its main job is to protect people.
In August, the Colorado DOT unveiled the Autonomous Impact Protection Vehicle (AIPV). As its name suggests, the AIPV is an autonomous vehicle with no passengers that is designed to intercept and absorb impact from oncoming vehicles that would otherwise strike workers in highway work zones. Traditionally, these vehicles have been piloted by human drivers. With an autonomous system accurate to within four inches, the self-driving vehicles figure to make roadways even safer.
Three different companies had a hand in developing these AIPVs: Royal Truck & Equipment, Kratos Defense & Security Solutions and Colas UK.
The AIPVs work in tandem, with a 'follower' vehicle trailing a 'leader' vehicle that sends navigational, speed and directional data to their autonomous counterparts. According to Colorado Department of Transportation Executive Director Shailen Bhatt, the AIPVs will address a serious safety issue on the state's highways.
"Just in the last four years, there have been 26 incidents where a member of the traveling public struck a CDOT impact protection vehicle - that's almost seven per year," Bhatt wrote in the announcement. "This is a dangerously high number when you consider that in some instances, a CDOT employee is sitting in the driver's seat of the vehicle that was hit. By using self-driving technology, we're able to take the driver out of harm's way while still effectively shielding roadside workers."
Danger around highway work zones is, obviously, not unique to Colorado, which had 21,898 car crashes take place between 2000 and 2014, resulting in 171 deaths. According to the Federal Highway Administration, there was a crash every 5.4 minutes in work zones, plus 70 daily crash-related injuries and 12 weekly crash-related deaths in 2014. Removing a worker from the role of driving the most vulnerable impact truck will make these areas safer for drivers and workers alike. It likely won't be long before this technology spreads to highways in other states.
"Everyone's very excited about connected and autonomous vehicle technologies," Bhatt noted. "My prediction is in the future, all state DOTs here in the country and even internationally will be using technology like this."