Driver-assist systems: A long history in Minnesota

Semi-truckThe SAFETRUCK circled the MnROAD low-volume loop in the late 1990s. The U’s development of driver-assist technology began decades ago, spearheaded by Professor Max Donath of the Department of Mechanical Engineering (ME). 

The technology is one of the first augmented-reality systems ever deployed. “The U is a leader in this technology, and we’re well-positioned to create the knowledge and data needed for vehicle automation on a larger scale,” Donath says.

The work began as an offshoot of pavement design research at the MnROAD research facility near Monticello. “MnROAD has a low-volume test track just off I-94,” Donath says. “In the mid-1990s a truck circled it constantly to study load impacts. MnDOT was concerned the driver would tire and leave the track, so they came to us for ideas. We developed a driver-assist system and installed it on the truck. It became our first GPS-guided test vehicle, in 1997. We demonstrated the technology to a national audience the next year.” 

Following this deployment, Donath proposed using the technology on snowplows—triggering a succession of projects that continues to this day. Over the years, researchers developed high-accuracy GPS, digital mapping systems, vehicle-mounted sensors, and feedback systems for the driver. Numerous vehicles using the systems have been deployed in Minnesota and Alaska.

In addition to plows, the technology has been tested in other specialty vehicles such as patrol cars. It has also been used to support the operation of bus rapid transit routes on bus-only road shoulders or in dedicated bus lanes throughout the Twin Cities.

The technology was developed and refined under multiple research projects funded by MnDOT and the USDOT’s University Transportation Center program, along with other sponsors and partners. Many ME researchers and students contributed, Donath says, giving particular credit to Chen-Fu Liao, Nichole Morris, Ted Morris, Craig Shankwitz, Lee Alexander, Pi-Ming Cheng, Brian Davis, Vassilios Morellas, Alec Gorjestani, Heon-Min Lim, Sameer Pardhy, and Bryan Newstrom.

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