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Center for Transportation Studies

University of Minnesota receives $2.65 million to improve winter driving

A University of Minnesota research team working to increase the safety of snowplow and emergency vehicle operation in low visibility conditions has received a $2.65 million boost from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), the Minnesota Department of Transportation (Mn/DOT), and transportation-related industries. The funds will be used over three years to integrate technologies designed to guide vehicles and avoid collisions into a comprehensive system to assist drivers. Tests of the new system will be carried out on Minnesota Trunk Highway 7, between Hutchinson and the Twin Cities.

The project is funded chiefly through a $3.9 million FHWA grant to Mn/DOT, one of four federal Intelligent Vehicle Initiative grants announced Nov. 8 by U.S. Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater. Mn/DOT is contributing an additional $970,000, and industry partners are contributing $1.69 million, for a total project budget of $6.55 million, of which $2.65 million will support University of Minnesota researchers. The Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) Institute, a program of the Center for Transportation Studies (CTS), will coordinate the work, which will be performed under contract to Mn/DOT.

“These technologies have implications to help drivers of all vehicles,” said Max Donath, director of the ITS Institute. “We have an opportunity not only to test these systems with professional drivers under the harshest conditions, but to help ensure that our rural roads stay open to the public. National tests such as these provide credibility to these concepts and help accelerate their deployment into the wider marketplace.”

The work will focus primarily on reducing the risk of driving snowplows or emergency vehicles during winter whiteouts, fog, or other low-visibility situations. Four snowplows, one state patrol vehicle, and one ambulance will be equipped with technologies to assist drivers. The first two years of the study will be devoted to installing and testing the technologies and training drivers; actual field tests on Highway 7 are planned for the third year.

In addition to University of Minnesota researchers, the project team will include representatives of Mn/DOT; 3M, provider of a magnetic-based lateral guidance system; Navistar, a supplier of medium and heavy-duty trucks; and Altra Technologies, provider of radar-based collision warning systems. Technologies to be tested include magnetic lateral position sensing along the roadway, a centimeter-level differential global positioning system (DGPS), a high-accuracy digital map of the road, several types of radar, a “virtual rumble strip” and a windshield “heads up” display. The heads-up display, developed by CTS researchers, allows drivers to “see” the road via a projected image of lane boundaries, fixed roadside features, and obstacles detected by radar. The virtual rumble strip, also developed at the University, causes the steering wheel to vibrate when a car veers out of its lane. The radar alerts plow drivers to obstacles ahead and flashes high-intensity lights from the rear of the plow to warn drivers approaching from behind.

In addition, emergency vehicle dispatchers will benefit from an automatic vehicle location (AVL) technology. An on-board unit allows two-way communication and displays of data on digital maps at dispatcher workstations. AVL is designed to give dispatchers a map of exactly which routes have been cleared so that emergency vehicles can respond more quickly during winter storms.

The University of Minnesota team includes, in addition to CTS and the ITS Institute, researchers from the Department of Mechanical Engineering, the College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, the Human Factors Research Laboratory of the College of Education and Human Development, and the University of Minnesota-Duluth.