University researchers improve snowplow safety

Juliah Rueckert

Neither rain, sleet, snow, nor dark of night will keep drivers from seeing what’s in front of their windshield. Even if nature wreaks havoc with visibility outside the vehicle, a video game-like image inside can make sure the driver knows where to go.
To further develop this technology, University researchers have equipped a snowplow with a driver-assisted system that projects circles and lines onto a screen on the windshield, painting an electronic image of the road it’s on.
For nearly two years, the University’s intelligent vehicles laboratory has worked on new applications for radar, global positioning systems and other devices for use in emergency vehicles.
“What we’re trying to do is improve visibility for all drivers,” said Craig Shankwitz, director of the institute’s intelligent vehicles program.
The snowplow has a radar unit, a high-accuracy global positioning system, a database of local street geography and a Heads-Up Display device, all to keep the driver informed.
It even has a “virtual rumble strip” that vibrates the steering wheel to keep the driver awake.
Satellite-fed information updates the snowplow’s location as the driver plows the city streets. With that system, onboard computers determine which street maps to project — images that are accurate down to the location of trees along the side of the road.
A driver is able to safely guide the vehicle using the virtual image when the visibility through the windshield is poor, Shankwitz said.
“Once you know where you are using GPS, then you have a map of the road,” said Alec Gorjestani, the radar and software architect for the project.
Two radar units are attached to the snowplow. One is located directly above the blade and another is on the cab of the truck. Each radar unit can track up to eight obstacles.
Radar is used rather than a video or laser-based location system because it is better at seeing through snow.
“It detects other vehicles and tells you where they are,” Gorjestani said.
The snowplow also has a vehicle guidance system that centers the snowplow in its lane. The driver will have manual control, but can preset the vehicle’s course in the lane. The GPS system will keep the truck in that lane, either by driving itself or vibrating the steering wheel when the truck leaves the lane.
“If the driver let go of the wheel, the truck would drift back to the center of its lane,” said Lee Alexander, a researcher involved with the project.
The next step for the research team is to create a virtual mirror, Shankwitz said. The mirror would alert a snowplow driver of something approaching from behind — especially useful since many cars have accidents overtaking snowplows and running into their wingblades. If the virtual mirror is used, the snowplow driver could lift the wingblade to allow cars to pass more freely.