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Protecting First Responders From Autonomous Vehicles

Erik McLean via Unsplash erik-mclean-winter police car-unsplash.jpg
Virginia Tech researchers are looking into ways to reduce the incidence of automated vehicles crashing into stopped police and fire vehicles.

One issue that has shown itself repeatedly in vehicles employing self-driving technology is an apparent literal blind spot in such systems for first responders stopped at the side of the road.

Repeated incidents of police cars and fire trucks being struck by cars whose drivers thought were driving themselves show that these “edge” cases of unusual circumstances remain a weakness for the software that studies the information coming into the car from its various imaging systems.

This problem isn’t going to solve itself, so Tammy Trimble, senior researcher for the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) has produced a report for the Governors Highway Safety Association examining the factors involved in these crashes, with the goal of developing ways to eliminate this problem from vehicles with automated driving systems without disrupting first responder protocols.

The project was conducted in three parts. Part one includes a literature review that introduced Advanced Driver Assistance System (ADAS) and Automated Driving System (ADS) technologies by describing their most recent and current states and forecasted near-term future deployments and outlooks.

Part two looks at discussions with government administrators, first responder and law enforcement organizations, automakers, crash reconstruction organizations, and insurance and safety advocates. These discussions explored and documented general training needs for public safety service providers as well as training channels and potential barriers.

By reaching out to a wide range of stakeholders, the researchers were able to identify areas where training was most needed. Additionally, stakeholders were asked to detail effective methods of presenting training materials as well as barriers to information dissemination.

Part three synthesizes the key findings from parts one and two to formulate a curriculum development strategy. The idea is for each recommended topic is to provide guidance to public safety providers.

“By conducting this research, it’s great to know that I am helping first responders stay safe on the job,” said Trimble, senior research associate for the institute's division of data and analytics. “Being able to discuss training needs and the uncertainty around these technologies with first responders and work to develop curriculum that can keep them safe and informed on advanced technology vehicles has been a great opportunity.”

“The rise of automated vehicle technology creates new opportunities to prevent crashes and accelerate efforts to reach our goal of zero roadway deaths, but this technology also poses new problems for public safety officials,” said GHSA Executive Director Jonathan Adkins.

The report produced this list of important areas of understanding to be examined in more detail:

  • Understanding the differences between and capabilities of ADAS- and ADS-equipped vehicles
  • Identifying ADS technologies on the road today
  • Understanding governmental responsibilities regarding vehicle oversight
  • Anticipating ADAS- and ADS-equipped vehicle deployment
  • Interacting with ADS-equipped vehicles
  • Understanding and accessing data

Because ADAS and ADS systems change and improve continuously through over-the-air updates, the report emphasizes that any recommended policies must be agile to accommodate future changes. The goal is to provide a knowledge base surrounding ADAS- and ADS-equipped vehicle deployment for law enforcement officials, first responders and crash investigators, and identify appropriate training channels and potential barriers to training and information dissemination.

Ideally, this work will lead to a reduction in the roadside collisions from automated vehicles and save the lives of first responders working on the shoulder of highways.

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