Penn State, Volvo Group discuss research collaboration on intelligent vehicles

In early June, Penn State hosted representatives from Volvo Group Trucks Technology and the University of California, Berkeley (UCB) to explore research collaboration involving intelligent commercial vehicles.

Martin Pietrucha, director of the Thomas D. Larson Pennsylvania Transportation Institute, and Sean Brennan, associate professor of mechanical engineering at Penn State, hosted Volvo representatives Skip Yeakel and Sam Mclaughlin as well as Tom West, director of the UCB Partners for Advanced Transportation Technologies. As part of the meeting, several connected trucks were showcased at the Penn State Larson Transportation Institute test track facility to demonstrate the ongoing work being led by UCB Partners for Advanced Transportation Technologies, with Volvo and Penn State as subcontractors. This visit followed the inaugural Vehicle to Infrastructure Deployment Workshop hosted by the Intelligent Transportation Society of America and the U.S. Department of Transportation in Pittsburgh, where the trucks were also exhibited.

Connected vehicles can talk to each other through dedicated short-range communication (DSRC) radios. For example, if the car in front of you stopped suddenly, it could send a signal to your car telling it to slow down. The DSRC radios work similarly to the Internet but with very little lag time.

“DSRC doesn’t transmit a lot of data, but it’s like a speedboat,” said Brennan. “It goes from Point A to Point B incredibly fast.”

UCB is working to modify automatic cruise control systems to include DSRC-enabled information sharing in commercial trucks. This technology would enable platoons of trucks to work together in what is called cooperative adaptive cruise control. Drivers could bring many vehicles almost bumper-to-bumper at highway speeds. The idea is to increase the capacity of highways because building more roads is costly and often space prohibitive. In addition, the tightly spaced vehicles increase efficiency by significantly reducing aerodynamic losses associated with highway driving.

The trucks brought to Penn State are capable of traveling in these close-packed platoons. The technology enables these platoons to open up, or separate, when a vehicle needs to move into their lane or if there is another obstacle. However, testing is a challenge.

“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,” Brennan said.

Penn State is developing driver simulation software to aid in testing. This open-source software can put multiple people into the same driving simulator, much like a video game. However, unlike a video game, the researchers have control over the entire environment, and can create contingencies including cooperative or disruptive bystander traffic, strange road configurations or blocked sensor inputs. The software closely models what will be used in actual vehicles.

The software facilitates testing of situations that would be impossible to test on open roads, like communication or mechanical failures in the platoon. Before it can be adopted for use, the system must accommodate emergency and unforeseen situations, such as a blown tire.

There is also the challenge of public education and acceptance before this system can be deployed on public roadways.

“There is a visceral need for people to see and experience things themselves,” Brennan said. “And we don't really have that capability right now anywhere.”

Public acceptance and emergency response are core areas that UCB is currently studying in partnership with Volvo and supported by Penn State. The conversation at Penn State explored how the two universities and Volvo could pool resources, facilitate public awareness, and start doing research-level and fault-level testing beyond very simple test cases to prepare these systems for public roads.

Penn State has an Academic Preferred Partnership Program with Volvo, and was the first university outside of Sweden to have that designation. In addition to autonomous vehicle research, Penn State partners with Volvo in many other areas, including engine research, fuels research, and driver assist and collision avoidance research.

Students from the intelligent systems vehicle group stand in front of a truck platoon. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

Last Updated July 27, 2015