Montana State University’s WTI to study safe integration of semi-autonomous trucks


The Western Transportation Institute (WTI) at Montana State University (MSU) is launching a program to study how to safely integrate driverless technology into the USA’s trucking fleet.

Self-driving trucks are currently being developed by several research teams worldwide, with the vehicles using sophisticated sensor-fed computing systems and GPS technology to navigate roadways. It is forecast that within a decade, the technology is likely to be applied in semi-autonomous truck convoys, or ‘platoons’, in which trucks equipped with self-driving technology would be programmed to follow human-piloted trucks. The platoon concept is designed to retain the acumen of the experienced human driver while reducing operating costs by eliminating the need for drivers in the following units, and the aerodynamic savings resulting in up 20% less fuel usage.

Craig Shankwitz, a senior research engineer in WTI’s Connected Vehicle Initiative, is leading the MSU’s new Collaborative Human-Automated Platooned Trucks Alliance (CHAPTA) program, which will study how driverless technology can be safely introduced to long-haul fleets. CHAPTA will be housed on the MSU campus and will use several unique WTI facilities. Its driving simulator will be used to provide truck drivers with a realistic experience of using the driverless technology in a platoon setting, while allowing researchers to test variables, such as the spacing distance between truck units. The project will also use WTI’s TRANSCEND test track in Lewistown, which consists of four miles of highway-like, closed-circuit roadway, that will allow researchers to test actual semi-autonomous truck platoons in a controlled environment under a variety of weather conditions.

“Given the rapid development of driverless technology, CHAPTA fills a need for a research and testing forum that works collaboratively with the trucking industry, regulators, law enforcement, and others, to ensure that the technology is safely and effectively applied,” explained Shankwitz. “Driverless technology is coming, and CHAPTA aims to smooth and accelerate its use by actively addressing human factors, operations, workforce development and institutional issues. Project members will play a significant role in guiding research priorities, and through the proper interaction of humans and autonomous systems, both safety and operational costs could be improved.”

Nic Ward, director of the Center for Health and Safety Culture at WTI, added, “Human factors are particularly important in applying the new technology, which fundamentally changes the role of the driver, and introduces the need for more information so that the driver understands and has the right amount of trust with the overall system.”

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Tom has edited Traffic Technology International (TTi) magazine and its Traffic Technology Today website since May 2014. During his time at the title, he has interviewed some of the top transportation chiefs at public agencies around the world as well as CEOs of leading multinationals and ground-breaking start-ups. Tom's earlier career saw him working on some the UK's leading consumer magazine titles. He has a law degree from the London School of Economics (LSE).