Autonomous impact protection vehicle could save crash truck workers

Global Business

Imagine climbing into a truck that’s designed to be struck by a vehicle, along the highway. That’s the job of so-called crash truck drivers, who provide a shield to crews doing road construction.

But soon, many of those work zone vehicles could be driverless – helping to make a dangerous job a lot safer.

CGTN’s Hendrik Sybrandy reports.

“It’s like a crash test dummy or test pilot,” Shailen Bhatt, Colorado Department of Transportation’s executive director, said. “It’s a dangerous job… In this era of what we call the D drivers, drunk, drugged, drowsy, distracted or dumb, people are not paying attention to where they need to be.”

According to the U.S. Federal Highway Administration, there’s a crash in a work zone every five minutes in the U.S, and on average more than two crash-related fatalities every day. Drivers of crash trucks, which offer protection to the mobile work crews just ahead of them, are particularly vulnerable. Soon, however, many of those work zone vehicles could be driverless.

“It’s actually a pretty simple set-up,” Kyle Lester, CDOT’s director of Highway Maintenance said. Lester said a cushioned truck is positioned behind the lead vehicle, then someone in the lead vehicle electronically controls it, using ten G.P.S. points between the two trucks.

“And in a sense you just press go and put the technology in operation,” Lester said. “So wherever that lead vehicle goes, wherever that driver goes, this vehicle is following a certain distance behind.”

The driverless truck, which is also just around the corner in the U.K., has been tested in places like Colorado parking lots.

“Almost like an obedience school, we’ve been training it,” Bhatt said. He added the truck will be used conservatively to begin with, for things like road striping operations. He said his employees are on board with the idea.

“A lot of people are concerned about automation and is it going to take jobs away from people,” he said. “This is a job we want to take away from people.”

The truck has attracted interest from dozens of other U.S. states and costs 350,000 dollars, more than twice as much as a regular crash truck. Colorado hopes to buy more of these vehicles as the price comes down. “As we perfect this, and fully deploy, people are going to see we can’t afford not to do this,” Lester said. “It just makes sense on a lot of fronts,” Bhatt added.

Both argued it’s a no-brainer when it comes to worker safety. Crash truck drivers pride themselves in “taking one for the team,” an idea that’s always been better in principle than in practice.