Tech developer, Arizona DOT partner to help autonomous trucks safely navigate highway work zones

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Embark Autonomous Truck
Autonomous tech developer Embark is partnering with the Arizona Department of Transportation to develop self-driving vehicles that can safely navigate hazards such as highway work zones. (Courtesy: Embark)

SAN FRANCISCO and PHOENIX — Highway work zones present hazards to both workers and motorists, with 123,000 work zone-related crashes reported in 2018, resulting in 757 fatalities, and the death toll for 2019 was 842, according to data from WorkZoneSafety.org. Those numbers predicted to continue an upward trend.

Add autonomous commercial trucks to the mix, and public concern about work zone safety only increases. Obviously, the ability of self-driving vehicles to safely navigate through work zones is a critical component in the deployment of autonomous trucks for long-haul freight.

Embark, a San Francisco-based developer of autonomous driving systems (ADS), and the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) are working to change that. In a first-of-its kind collaboration between a government agency and an automated driving system developer, Embark and ADOT have signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to address safe interaction between automated commercial vehicles and highway work zones in Arizona, the two entities announced March 24.

Like many state transportation agencies, ADOT is actively working to create safer work zones and reduce the number of crashes.

“ADOT is committed to supporting technological innovations that improve the safety of our highways. Work zone safety and automated vehicles are key examples of this commitment,” said John Halikowski, director of ADOT. “We are proud of the work ADOT has done so far in advancing work zone safety and support the safe testing of autonomous vehicles. This collaboration with Embark creates the opportunity to combine those efforts. We look forward to the results of this effort and what lessons can be applied across the state.”

Under the nonbinding, nonexclusive MOU, Embark and ADOT will work together to share data that will support the continued safe navigation of highway work zones by autonomous trucks. Using data collected from its operations, Embark will provide ADOT with feedback on mutually defined areas of interest such as infrastructure health, road design and quality of publicly available work zone data.

Embark will also provide technical briefings to Arizona state officials to contribute to awareness of rapidly developing AV technology. ADOT, in turn, will share open-source data on work zones that can contribute to safe navigation. Both Embark and ADOT may seek to share with other public sector stakeholders any relevant findings that would facilitate the safe deployment of autonomous vehicles.

“Safely navigating work zones is an important requisite for any driver, including autonomous trucks. By working with ADOT, we’ve accelerated our ability to understand and safely navigate corner cases, moving us closer to our goal of deploying autonomous trucks,” said Brandon Moak, co-founder and chief technology officer for Embark.

Work zones present the most common variable in long haul trucking that must be overcome for automated deployment.

According to a prepared statement, Embark’s trucks use a “sensors-first” architecture rather than relying on standard maps, allowing the vehicles to detect and react to lane closures and other dynamic changes in the road environment in a manner similar to that of a human driver. The goal is to develop technology that can safely react to lane closures as they appear on the road, including ones it has never seen before.

“We are excited that our system’s ability to read signs, respond to traffic control devices and detect workers, combined with its ‘always-on’ state that never gets fatigued or distracted, can be an important contributor to road safety in Arizona,” Moak said.

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