Research

Convoy! Penn State Works with UC Berkeley and Volvo on Smart Truck Testing

could seamlessly open up a spot. When an obstacle in traffic threatens their momentum, they would slow or change lanes in synch. That's the promise of intelligent commercial vehicles currently under study by researchers at Pennsylvania State University.

Penn State's Pennsylvania Transportation Institute is serving as a subcontractor to the University of California, Berkeley to explore "connected trucks." The institute is working with Berkeley's Partners for Advanced Transportation Technologies (PATH) as well as Volvo on the project. The European automaker has an academic partnership with the Pennsylvania institution, which gives Penn State students the chance to participate in co-op, internship and mentoring opportunities in research areas that include engines, fuels, driver assist and collision avoidance.

In a recent meeting that brought the three organizations together, connected trucks were demonstrated at Penn State's transportation institute test track. The trucks "talk" to each other through dedicated short-range communication (DSRC) radios. When a vehicle in front of the truck stops quickly, for instance, that event sends a signal telling the truck to slow down.

"DSRC doesn't transmit a lot of data, but it's like a speedboat. It goes from point A to point B incredibly fast," said Sean Brennan, associate professor of mechanical engineering at Penn State, who co-hosted the meeting, along with Martin Pietrucha, director of the transportation institute.

Berkeley is current working on modifying cruise control systems to incorporate DSRC-controlled information sharing in commercial vehicles. The technology would enable platoons of trucks to work together in "cooperative adaptive cruise control." That, suggested the researchers, could allow vehicles to operate "almost bumper-to-bumper at highway speeds," a capability that would expand overall road capacity and increase vehicle fuel efficiency.

The challenge that researchers are facing, however, is testing. Said Brennan, "One of the things I've been bemoaning for a long time is that there's not a highway set aside where you can drive autonomous vehicles at 70 miles an hour, and there are safety concerns about testing autonomous vehicles in the public space."

To remedy that gap, Penn State has begun to develop open source driver simulation software that could allow multiple people to operate in the same simulation. The software, which is under researcher control, would create road hazards to simulate real-life conditions that need to be tested, such as bystander traffic, a blown tire, strange road configurations or blocked sensor inputs.

There's also the on-going work of exposing the public to the concept of automated driving. "There is a visceral need for people to see and experience things themselves," Brennan explained. "And we don't really have that capability right now anywhere."

That was a topic explored during the recent Penn State/Berkeley/Volvo session. The three organizations intend to pool resources, work on public awareness and ramp up vehicle testing beyond simple test cases to prepare the systems — and trucks — for public roads.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal and Campus Technology. She can be reached at dian@dischaffhauser.com or on Twitter @schaffhauser.

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