Lane-departure crashes on curves make up a significant portion of fatal crashes on rural Minnesota roads. To improve safety, solutions are needed to help drivers identify upcoming curves and inform them of a safe speed for navigating the curve.
“Traditionally there are two ways to do this: with either static signage or with dynamic warning signs,” says Brian Davis, a research fellow in the U of M’s Department of Mechanical Engineering. “However, while signing curves can help, static signage is often disregarded by drivers, and it is not required for roads with low average daily traffic. Dynamic speed signs are very costly, which can be difficult to justify, especially for rural roads with low traffic volumes.”
In a recent project led by Davis on behalf of MnDOT and the Minnesota Local Road Research Board, researchers developed a method of achieving dynamic curve warnings while avoiding costly infrastructure-based solutions. To do so, they used in-vehicle technology to display dynamic curve-speed warnings to the driver based on the driver’s real-time behavior and position relative to the curve. The system uses a smartphone app located in the vehicle to provide the driver with visual and auditory warnings when approaching a potentially hazardous curve at an unsafe speed.
“Highway curves [make up] 19 percent of the total mileage of the paved St. Louis County highway system, yet these curves account for 47 percent of all severe road departure crashes,” says Victor Lund, traffic engineer with St. Louis County. “In-vehicle warnings will be a critical strategy to reduce these crashes.”
To begin their study, researchers designed and tested prototype visual and auditory warning designs to ensure they were non-distracting and effective. This portion of the study included decisions about the best way to visually display the warnings and how and when audio messages should be used. “To create the optimal user experience, we looked at everything from how to order the audio information and when the message should play to the best length for the warning message,” says Nichole Morris, director of the U’s HumanFIRST Lab and co-investigator of the study.
Next, a controlled field test was conducted to determine whether the system helped reduce curve speeds, pinpoint the best timing for the warnings in relation to the curves, and gather user feedback about the system’s usefulness and trustworthiness. The study was conducted with 24 drivers using the test track at the Minnesota Highway Safety and Research Center in St. Cloud, Minnesota. The selected course allowed drivers to get up to highway speeds and then travel through curves of different radii, enabling researchers to learn how sensitive drivers are to the position of the warnings.
Based on the study results, the system shows both feasibility and promise. “Our in-vehicle dynamic curve warning system was well-liked and trusted by the participants,” Davis says. “We saw an 8 to 10 percent decrease in curve speed when participants were using the system.”
The project was funded by MnDOT and the Minnesota Local Road Research Board.
An update to BullConverter allows MnDOT’s statewide weigh-in-motion (WIM) system to adopt systems from more manufacturers. The BullReporter upgrade adds new reporting functions, including a View Vehicles function that provides an image of a vehicle along with a graphical representation of WIM data, such as weight and speed.
This upgrade, developed through a research study, expands the commercial traffic information that the Office of Traffic System Management can provide to the MnDOT Office of Bridges and Structures, local and state permitting agencies, the Minnesota State Patrol and other Minnesota authorities.
“With BullReporter, now we can produce daily, weekly and monthly reports of the overweight vehicles that cross over WIM sensors,” Benjamin Timerson, Transportation Data and Analysis Program Manager, MnDOT Office of Transportation System Management.
What Was the Need?
Weigh-in-motion (WIM) systems measure characteristics of individual vehicles on the road, generating records of data that include vehicle type, speed, axle weights and spacing. When a vehicle crosses WIM sensors in the pavement, it triggers electrical signals that are transmitted to a WIM controller, which converts the signals into usable WIM vehicle data. A number of manufacturers produce WIM sensors and controllers, and each vendor employs its own methods of processing signals and producing proprietary WIM data.
In 2009, MnDOT began using BullConverter/BullReporter (BC/BR) software with heterogeneous WIM systems. BC converts incompatible, proprietary data into a uniform comma-separated values (CSV) format. BR generates reports from the converted CSV data, allowing the analysis of WIM data over different systems.
Currently, MnDOT’s Office of Transportation System Management (OTSM) uses WIM systems from International Road Dynamics (IRD), but recently began evaluating systems from Kistler and Intercomp. In a current study, investigators are evaluating the use of Intercomp WIM controllers with Intercomp sensors, IRD controllers with Kistler sensors, and Kistler controllers with Kistler sensors. These new WIM system combinations require new conversion functions in BC.
What Was Our Goal?
The goal of this project was to upgrade the BC/BR software package by improving existing functions and incorporating new functions that will convert Intercomp and Kistler formats to the Bull-CSV format and refine export functions in BC. MnDOT also wanted to expand data reporting capabilities and analytical options in BR, including a View Vehicles capability for analyzing individual vehicles.
What Did We Implement?
MnDOT funded enhancements to the BC/BR software package to include Kistler and Intercomp formats and develop new data retrieval, statistical assessments and report generation applications, including View Vehicles.
How Did We Do It?
MnDOT provided the original BC/BR developer with a detailed list of enhancements and new conversion and reporting functions. The team developed a new WIM data downloading tool for Kistler controllers that would connect the controllers through the Internet and download and archive the raw data. Developers added two new conversion functions in BC to support conversion from Kistler and Intercomp formatted data to CSV-formatted data. The team also updated the export function in BC.
The software team then added View Vehicles report, a new reporting function, to BR. View Vehicles allows queries of vehicle records under any combination of parameters, including lane numbers, date and hour ranges, class numbers, gross vehicle weight (GVW), speed range, axle weight ranges and warning flags. Retrieved vehicle data are then displayed in web or PDF formats with a digital photo of the vehicle and graphics of selected WIM parameters.
The team added histogram functions for GVW and equivalent single-axle load (ESAL), which would retrieve a set of vehicle data based on user-selected parameters and then plot a graph or produce a spreadsheet. Developers enhanced a few other elements of BC/BR, wrote a manual for editing classification schemes and trained OTSM staff on the editing procedures.
What Was the Impact?
Deploying the updated BC/BR software package has significantly helped MnDOT and other state agencies. OTSM now can produce many different reports with a range of user-selectable data queries that can be customized to share with the MnDOT Office of Bridges and Structures, the Minnesota State Patrol and overweight permitting offices.
Expanded GVW and ESAL data generated with the updated software can be used in evaluating designs for new bridge construction. Permitting offices can draw upon BR reports to request changed axle configurations of overweight vehicles to prevent bridge damage. OTSM can also provide reports and vehicle images for compliance activities to the MnDOT Bridge Office, permitting offices and the State Patrol.
In addition, the updated BC/BR can provide data on traffic volume and vehicle class to the Office of Traffic Safety and Technology, can inform design decisions by the Office of Materials and Road Research, and can offer a wide range of useful information to the Office of Freight and Commercial Vehicle Operations.
“This software allows us to use different WIM systems and generate reports and analysis by integrating incompatible systems. We added more capabilities in BullConverter and increased BullReporter functions from 40 to more than 60,” Taek Kwon, Professor, University of Minnesota Duluth Department of Electrical Engineering.
BC and BR are now fully updated for current needs and are in use by OTSM. The upgraded software will be used until industry changes or new analytical needs arise at MnDOT.
“We’re excited to partner with EasyMile to help MnDOT test autonomous technology,” said Jay Hietpas, MnDOT state traffic engineer and project manager. “Their expertise will help us learn how these vehicles operate in a winter weather environment so we can advance this technology and position MnDOT and Minnesota as a leader.”
EasyMile, which has a location in Colorado, has conducted driverless technology cold weather tests in Finland and Norway. Minnesota will be their first cold weather test site in the U.S. EasyMile will use its EZ10 electric shuttle bus that has already transported 160,000 people more than 60,000 miles in 14 countries. The shuttle was tested in various environments and traffic conditions. During these tests, the shuttle operated crash-free.
The shuttle operates autonomously at low speeds on pre-mapped routes. It can transport between six and 12 people.
Initially, it will be tested at MnROAD, which is MnDOT’s pavement test facility. Testing will include how the shuttle operates in snow and ice conditions, at low temperatures and on roads where salt is used.
Testing is scheduled to start in November and go through February 2018. The shuttle will also be showcased during the week of the 2018 Super Bowl.
Hietpas said 3M will also be a partner in the project so the company can research various connected vehicle concepts including sensor enhancement and advanced roadway safety materials. When optimized, these materials would aid in safe human and machine road navigation.
Read more about the autonomous shuttle bus pilot project:
“Phase 3 will allow us to utilize a new drone specific to confined space inspections,” Wells said. “This new drone is meant to reach places the prior drones could not, which will supplement our efforts nicely. Also, Phase 3 will include more bridge inspections in order to get a more comprehensive feel for cost and time savings.”
The increasing costs of bridge inspections are a concern for MnDOT. The use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) has been shown to reduce costs, improve the quality of bridge inspections, and increase safety. The UAS can deploy a wide range of imaging technologies including high definition still, video, and infrared sensors, and data can be analyzed using 3D imaging software.
MnDOT completed a small research project in 2015 to study the effectiveness of UAS technology applied to bridge safety inspections. The project team inspected four bridges at various locations throughout Minnesota and evaluated UAS’ effectiveness in improving inspection quality and inspector safety based on field results.
A second research effort demonstrated UAS imaging on the Blatnik Bridge and investigated UAS use for infrared deck surveys. Additionally, a best practices document was created to identify bridges that are best suited for UAS inspection.
It is the goal, based on this next phase of research, to implement a statewide UAS bridge inspection plan, which will identify overall cost effectiveness, improvements in quality and safety, and future funding sources for both state and local bridges.
Collins Engineering will also investigate a collision tolerant drone — the Flyability Elios — for confined space inspections.
As part of the Phase 3 project, Collins Engineering will:
Review current Federal Aviation (FAA) rules, technical literature, owners and industry experiences, and ongoing UAS research.
Develop bridge inspection list based on Phase II research regarding best practices. Approximately 20-25 bridges will be inspected under this contract depending on location and size.
Develop a field work plan for the bridge inspection list. If approvals for these bridges cannot be obtained, suitable alternatives will be chosen. This field work plan will address safety concerns, FAA, and other agency requirements.
Establish a work schedule and deliverable submission schedule.
Establish methods of access and schedule equipment.
Receive training on the Flyability collision tolerant drone for use in the study.
Perform field work at the selected bridges to collect imagery and evaluate the technology to accomplish the project goals.
Inspect known deficiencies identified during previous inspections with the use of the UAS to evaluate the ability to identify deficiencies using photos and video.
Enter bridge inspection data in Minnesota’s Structure Information Management System (SIMS) providing element condition ratings, photos, videos, etc. based on UAS imagery and information.
Prepare a draft report to document project activities, findings and recommendations.
The Phase 3 project is scheduled to be complete by July 2018.
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.
As part of an ongoing effort to institutionalize bicycle and pedestrian counting in Minnesota, MnDOT has published a new manual designed to help city, county, state, and other transportation practitioners in their counting efforts.
The Bicycle and Pedestrian Data Collection Manual, developed by University of Minnesota researchers and SRF Consulting Group, provides guidance and methods for collecting bicycle and pedestrian traffic data in Minnesota. The manual is an introductory guide to nonmotorized traffic monitoring designed to help local jurisdictions, nonprofit organizations, and consultants design their own programs.
Topics covered in the manual include general traffic-monitoring principles, bicycle and pedestrian data collection sensors, how to perform counts using several types of technologies, data management and analysis, and next steps for nonmotorized traffic monitoring in Minnesota. Several case studies illustrate how bicycle and pedestrian traffic data can be used to support transportation planning and engineering.
The manual was completed as part of the third in a series of MnDOT-funded projects related to the Minnesota Bicycle and Pedestrian Counting Initiative, a collaborative effort launched by MnDOT in 2011 to encourage nonmotorized traffic monitoring across the state. U of M researchers, led by professor Greg Lindsey at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, have been key partners in the initiative since its inception.
In addition to the manual, U of M researchers have published a final report outlining their work with MnDOT on this project. Key accomplishments include:
A new statewide bicycle and pedestrian traffic-monitoring network with 25 permanent monitoring locations
A district-based portable counting equipment loan program to support MnDOT districts and local jurisdictions interested in nonmotorized traffic monitoring
Minnesota’s first Bicycle and Pedestrian Annual Traffic Monitoring Report
A MnDOT website for reporting annual and short-duration counts that allows local planners and engineers to download data for analysis
Provisions added to MnDOT equipment vendor agreements that enable local governments to purchase bicycle and monitoring equipment
Annual training programs for bicycle and pedestrian monitoring
Provisions in the Statewide Bicycle System Plan and Minnesota Walks that call for bicycle and pedestrian traffic monitoring and creation of performance measures based on counts
“This is an excellent resource that steps through all aspects of managing a count program, and I think it will be very helpful to other states and organizations that want to implement their own programs,” says Lisa Austin, MnDOT bicycle and pedestrian planning coordinator. “Since Minnesota is a leader in counting bicycle and pedestrian traffic, it also fulfills what I think is an obligation to share our story with others.”
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.
Transportation agencies have long placed high importance on the thickness of their concrete roadways, making it a major focus of control and inspection during construction. While it is commonly believed thicker concrete pavements last longer, there is little data to support this claim.
“One big reason for the lack of data on the relationship between concrete pavement thickness and performance is the destructive nature of these measurements,” says Lev Khazanovich, a former professor in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Civil, Environmental, and Geo- Engineering. “Concrete thickness is typically assessed by coring—a destructive, expensive, and time-consuming test that only offers widely spaced measurements of thickness.”
In a MnDOT-funded study, U of M researchers set out to fill this knowledge void by leveraging recent advances in the nondestructive testing of pavements that allow for large-scale, rapid collection of reliable measurements for pavement thickness and strength. They conducted four evaluations on three roadways in Minnesota using ultrasonic technology to collect more than 8,000 measurements in a dense survey pattern along with a continuous survey of observable distress.
“We found that both pavement thickness and stress measurements are highly variable, with a half-inch of variation in thickness about every 10 feet,” Khazanovich says. “Interestingly, three of the four surveys averaged less than design thickness, which is contrary to typical accounts of contractors building slightly thicker slabs in order to avoid compensation deductions.”
Data analysis showed that exceeding design thickness did not seem to increase or decrease pavement performance. However, a measurement of pavement strength and quality known as “shear wave velocity” did produce valuable findings. “A drop in the shear wave velocity strength measurement corresponded to an increase in observable pavement distresses such as cracking and crumbling,” Khazanovich explains. “This was especially apparent when we were able to easily identify locations of construction changes, where significant changes in shear wave velocity matched up with observable distress.”
The results of this study illustrate the importance of material quality control and uniformity during construction, since alterations in pavement strength and quality may significantly influence pavement performance. In addition, researchers say that despite inconclusive thickness results, it is still important that pavement has significant thickness to carry its intended traffic load over its service life. Finally, the study demonstrates that new methods of ultrasonic shear wave velocity testing are useful for identifying changes in construction and design that could lead to higher rates of pavement distress.
Freeways and highways aren’t the only urban roads with traffic congestion, even though traffic management strategies have been largely directed toward improving traffic ﬂows there. So, U of M researchers have taken to city streets to reduce congestion in an innovative—albeit roundabout—way.
“There’s been a lot of research focused on controlling congestion on major highways and freeways, but there’s relatively less when it comes to looking at controlling traffic on urban arterials,” says Ted Morris, a research engineer with the Department of Computer Science. “It’s a very different picture when you get into urban arterials and the traffic behaviors going on there, because of the dynamics of route choice, pedestrian interactions, and other factors.”
Morris is part of a research team that aims to create a framework for testing and evaluating new urban traffic sensing and control strategies for arterial networks. The goal is to balance safety and efficiency for all users—especially in places where new types of urban transportation facilities are planned in the next few years.
The team is using the 66th Street corridor in Richfield as a test bed for its research. The city, along with Hennepin County, is in the process of converting a series of signalized intersections along the route to roundabouts over the next few years. The roundabout designs also incorporate new facilities for pedestrians, bikes, and bus transit as part of a multimodal approach.
Initially, the researchers sought to create a larger network of interconnected sensors and a live test bed, Morris says. But funding limitations kept the project area to approximately 10 miles of arterial roads, a portion of which will be supported by a network of interconnected traffic sensors. The research team is instrumenting major intersections along 66th Street with a reliable, low-cost, high-resolution camera mounted on a center pole and supporting electronics as the intersections are being reconstructed.
“You can zoom in pretty closely to capture all the different movements and events that we need to use for measurement and detection,” Morris adds. “The key to this, to really make it reliable, is you need to very carefully quantify gap acceptance and how that varies in time and time of day. You also need to know how pedestrian activities interact with the traffic flow.”
The use of roundabouts has grown in the region because they cost less to build and maintain than signalized intersections, they meet the latest design standards, and they improve safety by reducing traffic conflicts. But predicting the capacity of roundabouts can be especially challenging when factoring in pedestrian traffic, uneven traffic origin-destination flow, heavy vehicle volumes, and approach vehicle gap-selection timing.
In addition to creating a sensor network to obtain real-time vehicle and pedestrian data to help control traffic and keep it flowing smoothly, the researchers also are developing a traffic simulation model that includes almost all of Richfield—more than 140 signalized intersections covering 21 square miles, including the arterials. The simulation model will be used to develop and test traffic control strategies under different scenarios. Minnesota Traffic Observatory director John Hourdos is leading that effort.
This research and the field deployment system are funded through a collaborative grant from the National Science Foundation Cyber Physical Systems program. SRF Consulting is the industrial partner to help design the sensor network and evaluate the system.
As temperatures fall and days get shorter, MnDOT Metro District maintenance workers are wrapping up a season of mowing grass along roadsides and in medians that they hope will prove a little more efficient than in the past.
Thanks to a research project that installed GPS devices in tractor cabs, operators have a better sense of exactly which areas they need to mow and which areas should be left alone. Five Metro District tractors were tested in 2015. This year, more than 40 tractors were fitted with the automated vehicle location (AVL) technology, which includes a GPS antenna, an on-board central processing unit (CPU) and an in-cab screen with a user interface.
Trisha Stefanski, Metro District asset management engineer, expects one of the biggest benefits of the project to be a reduction in herbicide use. Maintenance crews use herbicide to control the spread of noxious weeds that sometimes get spread during mowing operations. Mapping exactly where noxious weeds are, and providing that information to operators on a real-time, in-cab screen and user interface helps them mow around those areas.
“We’re really hoping it will reduce the amount of herbicide that we’re putting on our roadways by 50 percent,” Stefanski said. “We’re not certain that will be the number, but that’s what we’re hoping for. We think just not mowing those areas will not spread as many noxious weeds and so we don’t have to apply as much herbicide.”
Metro District operators, such as Jesse Lopez, give the AVL technology rave reviews.
“Basically you can see what you shouldn’t mow and what you should mow. So, it makes it easy for me. It’s just like playing a game,” Lopez said. “This actually helps me to optimize what my job is. I know exactly where I’m at and where I’m going. I think everyone should use it – absolutely everybody who is in a mowing situation or a plowing situation.”
In addition, the AVL technology helps maintenance supervisors keep tabs on exactly where their operators are in real time. It also helps supervisors complete reports by automatically providing the geographic areas where mowing has been completed.
Stefanski says the project has gone really well, and she hopes collecting more data over another mowing season will show real savings on herbicide use. In the meantime, she is thinking of other ways AVL technology could be applied to maintenance operations.
“What I really like about the project is that we are taking something used in a lot snow plows and a lot of other technologies – cars, other things, maybe UPS uses them – and we’re putting it into maintenance operations,” Stefanski said. “Having it for mowing, we can also use it for smooth pavements. We can also use it for other things in mowing operations.”