A new app that sends warning messages to drivers as they approach work zones was featured on KARE 11 News on Thursday. The app was developed by U of M researchers in a project sponsored by MnDOT.
The story aired as part of KARE 11’s #eyesUP campaign to end distracted driving.
The app works by pairing with Bluetooth low-energy tags placed in work zones, triggering audio warnings in smartphones that are within their range. This allows drivers to get a warning message without having to look down at their phones—or at warning devices such as changeable message signs outside their vehicles. And if a driver is being distracted by their phone, the app will interrupt whatever they are doing to provide a warning that a work zone is up ahead.
U of M researchers Chen-Fu Liao and Nichole Morris, who worked on the project, are interviewed in the story, along with Ken Johnson, work-zone, pavement marking, and traffic devices engineer at MnDOT.
Imagine that you’re driving to work as usual when your smartphone announces, “Caution, you are approaching an active work zone.” You slow down and soon spot orange barrels and highway workers on the road shoulder. Thanks to a new app being developed by University of Minnesota researchers, this scenario is on its way to becoming reality.
“Drivers often rely on signs along the roadway to be cautious and slow down as they approach a work zone. However, most work-zone crashes are caused by drivers not paying attention,” says Chen-Fu Liao, senior systems engineer at the U’s Minnesota Traffic Observatory. “That’s why we are working to design and test an in-vehicle work-zone alert system that announces additional messages through the driver’s smartphone or the vehicle’s infotainment system.”
As part of the project, sponsored by MnDOT, Liao and his team investigated the use of inexpensive Bluetooth low-energy (BLE) tags to provide in-vehicle warning messages. The BLE tags were programmed to trigger spoken messages in smartphones within range of the tags, which were placed on construction barrels or lampposts ahead of a work zone.
The researchers also developed two applications for the project. First, they designed a smartphone app to trigger the audio-visual messages in vehicle-mounted smartphones entering the range of the BLE work-zone tags. A second app allows work-zone contractors to update messages associated with the BLE tags remotely, in real time, to provide information on current conditions such as workers on site, changes in traffic, or hazards in the environment.
Field tests proved the system works. “We found that while traveling at 70 miles per hour, our app is able to successfully detect a long-range BLE tag placed more than 400 feet away on a traffic barrel on the roadway shoulder,” Liao says. “We also confirmed the system works under a variety of conditions, including heavy traffic and inclement weather.”
“This was a proof of concept that showed that smartphones can receive Bluetooth signals at highway speeds and deliver messages to drivers,” says Ken Johnson, work-zone, pavement marking, and traffic devices engineer at MnDOT. “Future research will look into how we should implement and maintain a driver alert system.”
This future work includes using the results of a human factors study currently under way at the U’s HumanFIRST Laboratory to create recommendations for the in-vehicle message phrasing and structure. Then, researchers plan to conduct a pilot implementation with multiple participants to further evaluate the system’s effectiveness.
According to MnDOT, another phase of the project may investigate how to effectively maintain the BLE tag database. This phase could also investigate implementation options, such as how MnDOT can encourage drivers to download and use the app.
Each year, approximately 17 percent of road construction work zone fatalities nationwide are pedestrians.
At special risk are the visually impaired, who rely on walking and public transportation to get around.
A major challenge for them is crossing the street — which is even more difficult if an intersection is torn up.
MnDOT has invested significant effort to accommodate pedestrians, particularly those with disabilities, in temporary traffic control situations. This includes requiring temporary curb ramps and alternative routes when a sidewalk is closed.
Researchers, funded by MnDOT, have now developed a cell phone application to guide blind pedestrians around a work-zone.
Building on previous work to provide geometric and signal timing information to visually impaired pedestrians at signalized intersections, the smartphone-based navigation system alerts users to upcoming work zones and describes how to navigate such intersections safely.
The smartphone application uses GPS and Bluetooth technologies to determine a user’s location. Once a work zone is detected, the smartphone vibrates and announces a corresponding audible message. The user can tap the smartphone to repeat the message, if needed.
The federal government strongly encourages states to provide either audible warnings or tactile maps at work zones where visually impaired pedestrians are expected to be impacted.
“The smartphone application is a step in that direction,” said MnDOT technical liaison Ken Johnson. “It’s a way to see if this type of way-finding device would work.”
Since smartphone use is still limited, the state is also interested in special equipment that could relay the audible warnings at affected work zones.
“However, smartphone use is increasing in the general population, as well as with persons with disabilities, and there will likely be a day when it will be rare to not have a smartphone and this tool could meet road agency needs,” Johnson said.
Before developing the smartphone application, researchers surveyed 10 visually impaired people about their experiences at work zones and what types of information would be helpful in bypass or routing instructions.
The University of Minnesota research team, led by Chen-Fu Liao, tested the smartphone application by attaching four Bluetooth beacons to light posts near a construction site in St. Paul.
Additional research is now needed to conduct experiments with visually impaired users and evaluate system reliability and usefulness.