As an industry-leading, Safety-Driven®, short-term traffic control company operating more than 1,000 active work zones across the East Coast daily, we understand the dangers of working on or near the roadway. From speeding vehicles and distracted drivers to motorists who disobey, or disregard, work zone signs, there are many actions that can lead to devasting injuries and fatalities.

At Flagger Force, we are committed to improving work zone safety. From leveraging our internal hands-on training and customized microlearning platform to deliver engaging and educational content to our team members to supporting the latest work zone safety research and innovations, we are dedicated to ensuring everyone arrives home safely to their loved ones at the end of each day.

Improving work zone safety, protecting roadway workers, and reducing the number of tragic incidents that result in critical injuries and fatalities requires a collaborative effort. We recently had the opportunity to visit the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI), a premier research institute created by Virginia Tech focused on continually advancing transportation through innovation and affecting public policy on national and international levels. We connected with Dr. Michael (Mike) Mollenhauer, the division director of technology implementation, to see firsthand the innovative projects the organization is working on and other emerging transportation technologies that could positively impact work zone safety.

Mike presenting prototype work zone safety technology.

Dr. Michael Mollenhauer leads transportation safety and technology development research programs at VTTI. He directs a team of researchers and engineers that help customers conduct early-stage deployment and evaluation of connected and automated vehicle systems. He completed a $7.5M project to develop a Level 4 automated vehicle that can demonstrate how driverless vehicles can interact safely with public officials. More recently, his team has been awarded $10M to implement smart cities technologies in Falls Church, Virginia. Mike’s team is also leading VTTI’s efforts to develop and demonstrate smart work zone technologies including a work zone design software tool, smart vests, smart helmets, camera-based work zone intrusion detection, and an automated truck mounted attenuator vehicle.

See what Mike shared during our recent visit to learn how VTTI is shaping the future of safer and smarter work zones.

What is the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute’s mission?

Mike: VTTI’s mission is to save lives, time, and money as well as improve transportation systems. We take the saving lives component very, very seriously. When we can make any kind of positive progress in that area, we feel we are doing the right thing and fulfilling our mission.

What are your daily roles and responsibilities within the Division of Technology Implementation?

Mike: I have been with VTTI for almost 17 years now. I started in a commercialization role and then worked my way into leading a division. My roles and responsibilities within the Division of Technology Implementation (DTI) are focused on taking technologies from a lab or test track environment out into the world for early deployments, so pilot-level activity. I work to inform clients and customers, like the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) and industry partners, about the benefits and capabilities of some of the new technologies that are out there.  

Could you provide an overview of the Division of Technology Implementation?

Mike: The DTI is responsible for researching transportation-related systems and bringing technologies to fruition. Sometimes, we are involved in decisions that help to guide policies or help to solve technical challenges. Other times, we roll up our sleeves and work with our stakeholder partners to try something new for the first time. I want people to know that we are not just an academic organization. When our division does technical development, we do not just write a paper and put it on a shelf or publish it in a journal. Whether we are configuring and designing software, procuring off-the-shelf technologies from existing industry partner solutions and evaluating their effectiveness, or developing and maintaining connected vehicle test bed environments, we view ourselves as facilitators of this technology. Our responsibility is to try to solve all the unsolved problems and make things applicable so they can be applied in a real environment.

Could you share insights on the research your division is conducting on automated truck-mounted attenuator vehicles?

Mike: Recently, there has been a lot of activity around the automated truck-mounted attenuator (TMA) vehicle. The TMA is an automated vehicle that can be operated in a leader-follower configuration. Essentially, there is a lead vehicle that has a technology package that the following vehicle can pick up. With this information, the following vehicle knows where the lead vehicle has operated and can follow its trail. The key element is that the TMA vehicle allows us to take the driver out of the most vulnerable vehicle and most likely to be struck in a work zone environment, improving safety. We are fond of this project because it allows us to help save somebody from an injury or a fatality, and that is our mission at VTTI.

“The TMA vehicle allows us to take the driver out of the most vulnerable vehicle and most likely to be struck in a work zone environment, improving safety. We are fond of this project because it allows us to help save somebody from an injury or a fatality, and that is our mission at VTTI.”

Could you explain the smart work zone system your division is working on?

Mike: The smart work zone system is a modular set of tools that can be deployed within a work zone to help both improve the safety of roadway workers and inform drivers about what is happening in the work zone. The set of tools includes smart helmets, smart vests, camera-equipped cones, and more. Smart helmets and vests may vibrate, light up, or make noise to alert roadway workers of approaching dangerous situations, such as speeding or out of control vehicles. The wearables can also inform employees when they enter an area of the work zone that poses risks. All pieces of the smart work zone system, such as the smart helmets, smart vests, and camera-equipped cones, are connected through a behind-the-scenes software application. Every work zone is different, so this technology gives safety professionals the flexibility to identify areas within a work zone that are the most dangerous and then implement the tools in those areas to monitor what is happening and provide alerts and messaging to the roadway workers to keep them out of harm’s way.

As part of the smart work zone system, we are also exploring ways the technology can be used to avoid backing over accidents. The goal is to create technology and tools that notify roadway workers when a piece of equipment starts moving nearby so that they can get out of the way and avoid being struck.

Could you explain the work zone builder application your division is working on?

Mike: The work zone builder application is a resource that can be accessed on a mobile device, such as a tablet or smartphone. This technology aims to put a tool in the hands of those responsible for designing and setting up work zones. The application allows users to input specific information, such as their exact location, the type of work zone they need to set up, and other details. Based on these insights, the application provides specific directions on how to set up the work zone, such as where signage should be placed and how far from the work zone, so that the setup is accurate and in compliance with the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices. The work zone builder application allows individuals to be more accurate and efficient at their job and reduces the time they spend on or near the roadway trying to set up work zones properly, improving safety.

“The work zone builder application allows individuals to be more accurate and efficient at their job and reduces the time they spend on or near the roadway trying to set up work zones properly, improving safety.”

What other emerging transportation technologies have the potential to impact work zone safety?

Mike: We recently completed a project for the Federal Highway Administration’s Automated Driving System Demonstration Grant. For this project, we automated a Ford F-150 to address the needs of various scenarios that were defined for us about how automated vehicles need to interact with public safety officials, like fire, police, and EMS. We had to teach the vehicle to pull over for law enforcement. A wide array of technologies were applied to the vehicle to ensure officers could interact with the driverless vehicle and that it reacted appropriately in different scenarios. We built in interfaces, including a touchscreen display in the window that could be used to interact with the vehicle and remotely call the fleet manager, if necessary. After completing the project, we did demonstrations in Northern Virginia on the I-395 express lanes to show the public how the vehicle operates and discuss our work.

Another piece of technology that I believe has a lot of promise is smart intersections. Smart intersection technology takes the sensors used in the work zone environment, such as machine vision with cameras, radar, or lidar to understand the comings and goings at an intersection. This technology can tell where pedestrians are, where vehicles are, and how everyone interacts at that location. These insights can be used to control the signal and phasing time on the traffic lights, enhancing safety for the vulnerable road users and improving traffic flow through the intersection. The technology also helps to identify when there are hotspots or areas where there are a lot of conflicts, so that we can consider deploying traditional countermeasures. For example, a median where pedestrians might be able to stand if it takes too long to cross the road.  

Based on your interactions and conversations, how do public safety officials feel about autonomous vehicles?

Mike: Public safety officials understand autonomous vehicles are coming but want to make sure they are safe when interacting with the vehicles. When working on the autonomous Ford F-150 that I mentioned earlier, we built in technology that allows an officer to scan their authority card issued by their institution, which opens a panel where they can disable automation. The panel is on the back right of the vehicle, which is where they would normally approach a vehicle during a traffic stop. We received a lot of positive feedback regarding this feature because it keeps the officer out of the pathway of the vehicle, allows them to keep their eyes on the occupants, and does not require them to try and get into the vehicle, which could be dangerous if the vehicle begins to move. To sum it up, I would say they are happy we are doing more research and spending time thinking through the safety components, but they are a little skeptical about how long it will take to get to the point where autonomous vehicles are standardized and everyone interacts with them the same way.

How do you test and measure the effectiveness of the technology that your division develops?

Mike: Our approach really depends upon the technology itself. Let’s use smart intersection technology as an example. We know cameras are used to identify the object approaching the intersection, which could be a car, a pedestrian, a bicyclist, etc. We can take a highly instrumented, precise vehicle that we know the GPS location of and drive through that intersection. We can then use the sensors on the vehicle and in the intersection to compare reporting and look at the differentials to make improvements. We conduct this testing on our controlled-access test track in all kinds of weather and lighting because we know the technology must operate accurately in the rain, fog, snow, and in the dark. We report our results and use that information to determine the technology’s effectiveness. Some technologies are mature and ready to go, but others require more work and testing.

How have local community members responded to the institute’s research efforts and investments into roadway safety?

Mike: When VTTI first proposed the Virginia Smart Roads, which are state-of-the-art, closed test-bed research facilities, there was a fair amount of pushback from the community. Folks were saying “It is a road to nowhere” and “Why are you investing all this money in a road that we cannot use?” But that was over 30 years ago. Today, we have completed over 35,000 hours of research on our Smart Roads and have grown from 25 to almost 400 employees. Our facilities bring a lot of visitors to town, and I believe the local community understands that is an economic driver. Folks like to have something unique in their community that they can hang their hat on and feel good about, so I think the overall sentiment is positive.

The Bridge that is part of the VTTI Smart Roads

Five or six years ago when we proposed expanding to think about rural environments the idea was well received. The people who will be left behind in the whole automated and connected development process are those living in rural environments. Many of the existing deployments are focused on urban areas with good weather and flat roadways, but that is not the way the rest of the world is. That was the driving factor behind VTTI adding the rural Smart Road because we can focus and work on research for those harder environments, which people appreciate. 

Do you have any data or real-life scenarios to show how the institute’s efforts are making a positive impact on work zone safety?

Mike: That is tough because the technologies we develop and test are still at the pilot stage. A lot of our data is anecdotal from pilot projects that we have gone out and implemented. For example, there was a particular work zone that our team was called in to help with because there had been multiple incursions. Large trucks were coming down a hill and their brakes were giving way because they were approaching at a high rate of speed. There was one incursion into the work zone and Virginia Department of Transportation vehicles were hit. It was lucky there were no major injuries, but people did have to scatter in that scenario. There was a lot of risk in that work zone.

To improve safety, we deployed our smart work zone technology. We gave smart vests to a few workers and connected an air horn to a sign leading up to the work zone. If a vehicle passed the sign at a high rate of speed, the air horn would go off giving the workers at least an eight-second heads up as to when the vehicle was going to come into the area and likely cause an intrusion. It gave the workers an opportunity to look up, identify the hazard, and get out of the way.   

What do you imagine future work zones will look like?

Mike: What I imagine and hope for is that we will have more local connectivity and precision about the information that is given, so that when we have automated and connected vehicles in the world, they can receive that information and supplement the human decision-making process a bit more than they currently do. The ability to tap into technologies, such as automated emergency braking in situations could also be possible. Let’s say we have somebody with our smart helmet on and we are broadcasting their location. Somehow a vehicle gets into the work zone and the roadway worker might get hit. We would like to be able to automatically apply the brakes in that scenario and take the human out of the equation so that we can make it a work zone where nobody can be hit. Or if they are struck, it is at a much-reduced level of severity. Having local connectivity and the ability to tap into capabilities of the vehicles that will take the human distraction, the human impairment, and other issues out of the equation would be something I want to work towards and imagine in future work zones.

"We would like to be able to automatically apply the brakes in that scenario and take the human out of the equation so that we can make it a work zone where nobody can be hit.”

Is there anything you want traffic control professionals to know about the work your division is doing?

Mike: I would like traffic control professionals to think of us as an honest third-party broker when it comes to both evaluating and developing technology. All these technologies, while they are fantastic, may have a weakness of one kind or another. And in some cases, they are not completely robust yet. Our job is to continue to advance them, expand the envelope of what is possible, and report the realities of what we find. I think there are companies out there who are marketing products that may not be quite ready for broad deployment and that could potentially damage our ability to really bring a robust product to market sometime in the future. I would rather see us move at a more reasonable pace that is more indicative of the actual capabilities of the technology than what is being hyped up from a marketing perspective. So, we are committed to giving honest answers and helping fill the gaps where needed to enhance work zone safety.

“When it comes to both evaluating and developing technology…Our job is to continue to advance them, expand the envelope of what is possible, and report the realities of what we find.”

How can private businesses and research institutes collaborate to make advancements in the industry together?

Mike: It is important that private businesses interact with us, so we understand specific industry challenges and are not spending time on problems that already have a solution. VTTI can be a useful supplemental arm to an organization as opposed to a competitor. We want to collaborate and help make improvements. We can play a variety of different roles and it does not always have to involve developing technology. We can evaluate technologies that are already developed to give realistic answers as to how effective they are or what might be modified to make them better. We are there to support private businesses at whatever level is needed. As I mentioned earlier, we are not just an academic organization. We do real things, we have real impact on policy, and we have real impact on technology deployment. When we all work together, that impact can be even greater.

Another thing I would say is that we favor long-term partnerships. We have taken this approach with several different businesses, and it has been very successful. We strive to facilitate good work, so that means we might go look for supplemental funding sources to help an industry partner solve their problem, which would be hard for them to do on their own. So again, we are willing to roll up our sleeves to be in a partnership and we look at the long-term value of that.

“We do real things, we have real impact on policy, and we have real impact on technology deployment. When we all work together, that impact can be even greater.”

At Flagger Force, we are pleased to collaborate with other professionals and organizations that share our Safety-Driven® mindset and are committed to improving work zone safety. We want to thank the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute for all their hard work to continually advance transportation through innovation. And we thank Mike Mollenhauer for participating in this insightful discussion and sharing all that the Division of Technology Implementation is doing to make work zones safer and smarter.