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NDSU Research to Focus on Use of Autonomous Trucks in Rural Areas

Posted: Nov 8, 2023

Potential implementation of autonomous trucks in North Dakota and the northern Great Plains is the focus of a new research project at North Dakota State University's Upper Great Plains Transportation Institute (UGPTI).

The two-year project, led by UGPTI Director Denver Tolliver, is funded by a $750,000 grant from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and will explore various deployment options, routes, and practices and quantify the safety, regulatory, energy, environmental, and economic impacts of autonomous trucking.

"We're already seeing autonomous trucks on roads in the southwestern United States, and they could soon be implemented across the United States," Tolliver said. "To maximize the benefits and minimize any disruptive effects of autonomous trucking, it will be important for motor carriers, shippers, the traveling public, and transportation and safety enforcement agencies to be prepared for this impending change.

For much of the year, characteristics of trucking across the Upper Great Plains, and North Dakota in particular, may make the region attractive for implementing the technology, Tolliver said. Grain and sugar beet harvests result in intense truck operations during a relatively short period in the fall. Similarly, hydraulic fracturing operations used in oil and gas production require concentrated movements of inputs to well sites. These truck movements pose unique safety concerns on rural roads. Meanwhile, the reliability and efficiency of those economic sectors are critically important to the rural economy.

"We'll be looking at how implementation of various levels of autonomous truck technology may be able to address those unique challenges," Tolliver said. "Safety will be a key consideration in the research. We will not only be addressing perceived safety concerns related to the use of autonomous trucks through education and outreach efforts, but we also will examine ways that self-driving trucks can enhance safety in rural areas."

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT), only 19% of the U.S. population lives in rural areas, but more than 45% of all roadway fatalities occur on rural roads. USDOT also notes that nearly half of all truck vehicle miles traveled occur on rural roads. Human factors such as boredom, distractions, poor judgment, and slow reaction times can be eliminated with autonomous trucks. Similarly, they can decrease stopping distances, avoid rear-end collisions, prevent lane and roadway departures, and eliminate high-risk behavior at rail grade crossings.

Key goals of the project are to:

  • Investigate markets
  • Develop information to aid in deployment
  • Identify optimal routes and practices
  • Examine permitting and safety enforcement considerations
  • Identify barriers
  • Prepare agencies and the public for autonomous trucking demonstrations
  • Facilitate demonstrations

Other researchers involved in the project include Alan Dybing, a specialist in rural roads and highway and truck modeling; Brenda Lantz, director of UGPTI's Commercial Vehicle Safety Center; Kimberly Vachal, director of UGPTI's Rural Transportation Safety and Security Center; Pan Lu, an expert in data analysis and remote sensing; and Raj Bridgelall, director of UGPTI's Center for Surface Mobility Applications and Real-time Simulation Environments.

As a first step in the project, the researchers are assembling a project advisory team that will include representatives from the U.S. DOT's regional field offices, the North Dakota Highway Patrol, the North Dakota Department of Transportation, commercial motor carriers that are members of the North Dakota Motor Carriers Association, industry associations that are dependent on motor carrier transportation in rural areas, tribal officials, and technology providers that retrofit, sell, and support autonomous truck operations.

"Input from those team members will make sure we address the major issues associated with autonomous trucking in rural areas and help us identify both challenges and opportunities," Tolliver said.

NDSU Dept 2880P.O. Box 6050Fargo, ND 58108-6050