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Federal Highway Administration Research and Technology
Coordinating, Developing, and Delivering Highway Transportation Innovations
This magazine is an archived publication and may contain dated technical, contact, and link information.
|Publication Number: Date: Nov/Dec 1997|
Issue No: Vol. 61 No. 3
Date: Nov/Dec 1997
The Technology Truck expands into a demonstration area and classroom.
There's a white 18-wheel tractor-trailer rig presently criss-crossing the country, traveling from city to city, from college campuses to roadside weigh stations, from convention centers to government office complexes.
This truck does not carry freight. Instead, it is a traveling classroom and demonstration site for intelligent transportation systems (ITS) and other advanced technologies pertaining to commercial vehicle operations (CVO). Dubbed the "Technology Truck" (officially known as Demonstration Project #111 or DP-111), the white 1997 Ford AeroMax tractor and its accompanying 14.6-meter (m) trailer are part of a Federal Highway Administration campaign, led jointly by the Office of Motor Carriers (OMC) and the Office of Technology Applications (OTA), to inform state government officials and other key local decision-makers of the state of the art in commercial vehicle technologies and the benefits of the OMC's ITS/CVO program.
The standard 2.5-m-wide trailer expands, using a hydraulic system, to a 7-m-wide classroom and demonstration area filled with computers, interactive kiosks and other hands-on displays, a video mural wall, hands-on technology ciemonstrations, collateral materials from companies participating in the project, and a full-scale simulation of a truck cab complete with advanced communications and safety technologies.
Some of the technologies on display in the trailer are installed and function in the tractor cab as well. Portable systems that are too large to fit in the classroom area are demonstrated outside. Two or more facilitators guide visitors through the demonstrations and presentations, answering questions and providing information about the technologies and programs.
Among the 50 or so vendor products and services represented on the Technology Truck are many of the ITS or other advanced technologies that are expected to transform commercial vehicle operations and the regulation of the motor carrier industry over the next decade. Displays are organized around three themes: "in the office' administrative and operational systems (weigh-in-motion systems, tracking/ monitoring systems, license plate readers, pen-based computers, etc.), "in the vehicle" driver information systems (on-board computer systems, routing and reporting software, global positioning systems), and "at the roadside" safety systems.
At a time when federal and state transportation agencies are cutting budgets, ITS technologies allow regulators and law enforcement officials to streamline their administrative processes and provide service more efficiently and effectively. Commercial vehicle applications allow motor carriers to improve productivity and enhance safety for drivers.
The $1.5 million Technology Truck was created to spread the word about the capabilities and potential benefits of robust ITS systems and to dispel some of the negative myths that have sprung up around these technologies. The classroom has provided a neutral ground where sometimes adversarial groups such as truck drivers and state police officers or such as motor carrier officials and state regulators can meet to compare and hash out how the technologies can reduce the aggravations that have marred their relationships.
The greatest challenge of creating the Technology Truck, said John McCracken, leader of the Advanced Transportation Technologies team at OTA, was designing the inside display area of the custom-made trailer. Nevertheless, he said he is "happy with the results."
The classroom area can be reconfigured to host groups of various sizes, said Ron Edins, the structural engineer and exhihit specialist who designed the interior of the truck. Wall panels, tables, and other equipment can be rearranged so that a touring group can view the kiosk and the mural wall while a "medium-sized" group of 14 guests meets in the classroom area in the back of the trailer. Small groups of, say, six guests can meet around a table in the center of the classroom area. The larger "auditorium" configuration can accommodate up to 24 people and allows the speaker to use a projector to project images on one of the walls.
Each vendor provided a "suitcase" to store its display equipment; this allows the facilitators to pull out hardware suitable for a particular audience or impromptu demonstrations. The main challenge, Edins said, was creating a system that is flexible enough to handle every meeting need but would easily collapse and be safely stored for traveling.
"Everything [wall panels, tables, chairs, etc.] that is not being used has to be able to 'disappear' until next time it is needed," Edins said. "It was a challenge to figure out what to do with the simulator and some of the technologies hooked up to it when it is not being used."
Ultimately, those problems were solved. "The truck does everything we originally wanted it to do," Edins said. The Technology Truck is expected to be in service for the next two to three years, said Zeborah English, national communications and outreach coordinator for the ITS/CVO Division of OMC. Operating expenses -- travel, salaries for the drivers/facilitators, maintenance, and operating costs -- for the truck have been programmed into the division's budget, she added. "Costs have been projected outward to 1999," she said.
The tractor unit was donated by the Heavy Truck Division of Ford. The trailer was custom-made for the OMC by TTI of Walleye, Mich. The technologies on display in the classroom must he off-the-shelf and the latest version presently available on the market, English said.
About 150 contributing partners, led by the Oak Ridge National Laboratories, the prime contractor, worked on the concept, design, construction, and equipment installation for the project. In addition to the many vendors who were asked to participate by the Federal Highway Administration, others, upon hearing about the project, asked if they could participate in some way.
One of the highlights of the project is the team of private sector partners that has been brought together and continuing attraction of additional companies, said OTA's McCracken.
"Companies are still asking us if they can be included in the project," he said.
"Partnering like this is very important to the Federal Highway Administration and Congress. The cost of this project is being shared by the federal government and the participating companies. Every piece of equipment in the displays has been loaned, and while some of the pieces are not especially large or expensive, that is still equipment that we did not have to go out and purchase," McCracken stated.
To date, more than 50 organizations have requested to host the truck, according to English. While the remainder of 1997 is booked solid, she will try to squeeze in new appearance dates if the circumstances support such a move. The truck will appear at trade shows, conferences, state motor carrier association meetings, truck shows, truck stops, colleges and universities, state technology meetings, state police meetings, and state regulatory agency meetings.
"We are well into our 1998 scheduling," English said. "We've had to turn down several opportunities in 1997 because of scheduling conflicts. A number of organizations that hosted the truck this year have already made arrangements to host it at events next year."
"Demand has been very high," said McCracken. "We expect even more requests for the truck once the word gets out about it."
When the truck cannot make an appearance at an event, the ITS/ CVO Division offers to make an interactive kiosk available, said English.
Inside the demo area of the Technology Truck is a full-scale simulation of a truck cab complete with advanced communications and safety technologies.
The Technology Truck will be on the road steadily until about Thanksgiving, when it will be pulled from the road for minor repairs and technological upgrades. The truck may make a couple of appearances in December or early January at, for instance, the Transportation Research Board annual meeting in Washington, D.C., in early January.
"We wanted to let everyone involved, particularly the drivers, have the Christmas holidays off," English said. Sometime, probably about mid-January, the truck will travel to Oak Ridge Lahoratories in Tennessee for maintenance. The trailer may go back to TTI to "iron out a few quirks," English said. Vendors will have a chance to rotate and upgrade their products. Information on the kiosks and other displays will be upgraded.
"We will evaluate each of the technologies and allow the companies the chance to upgrade or improve their displays," said McCracken. "Demonstration projects like this can be very dynamic. We will bump someone from the project if they don't upgrade their display with their latest products or if their technology doesn't keep up with what other companies are offering in the marketplace."
This creates a competitive environment that encourages participating companies to provide the very best technologies available on the marketplace, he said.
The genesis of the project was in 1994 when, English, who had just joined the ITS/CVO Task Force, found herself with the responsibility of developing a national outreach campaign to explain the division's program to divergent audiences. She was a one-person staff.
At about the same time, she was approached by Dave Helman, then with the Office of Technology Applications, about creating a teaming opportunity for their two divisions. OTA was looking "to cievelop demonstration projects to help make people aware of the benefits of technical applications," said Helman. Over the course of several meetings between the two in 1994, the concept of the Technology Truck was conceived, took shape, and was solidified.
"In 1995, I began working with Oak Ridge to design the vehicle," said English. "A technical working group of representatives from the motor carrier industry, ITS/CVO stakeholders, and regulatory/lav, enforcement was hrought together to take the concept to the next level while the vehicle was heing designed," she added. Decisions were made about what the "guts" of the display area would look like.
"We did not want a traveling display unit," English explained. "We wanted an interactive environment that would be visually challenging -- a stimulating environment to experience the technologies' uses and benefits. We wanted something that hadn't been done before."
Early in 1996, McCracken joined the team and guided the development of the content and design over the next year anci a half. He stepped in to pick up the project when Helman left OTA.
While the content of the presentations was developed throughout 1996 and into the early months of 1997, the trailer was customdesigned and built in the fall of 1996. The truck and trailer were delivered in January 1997. After some fine tuning of the material on the kiosk and some technical tweaks of the hydraulic system during the spring, the Technology Truck was formally unveiled at U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) headquarters in conjunction with the ITS America annual meeting on June 2, 1997.
Following a brief trip to Michigan to take care of some last minute problems with the hydraulic system, the truck hit the road in mid-June.
Oak Ridge Lahoratories solicited two full-time drivers from the motor carrier industry and three part-time drivers to serve as drivers and facilitators for the project. To be selected for this assignment, the candidates had to have extensive driving experience and a background as a classroom instructor. Facilitators must be able to speak to government officials, regulators, law enforcement officers, legislators, and the motor carrier professionals alike.
"I feel we have a good mix of talent that ensures that we are able to speak to any audience,' said English. "Facilitators are rotated in and out depending on the audience. Some speak better to some audiences than others. We try to ensure the comfort of our audiences. The drivers know the language of the audience they are addressing."
Response to the Technology Truck and especially its facilitators has thus far heen decidedly enthusiastic, she said. Crowds have been good, and she has received a significant amount of feedback in the form of letters and phone calls. At the unveiling ceremony on June 2, nearly 100 people toured the truck.
The truck's first stop was the state government complex in Albany, N.Y. When English asked New York State Department of Transportation officials if they could store the truck for a couple of days before it headed off to its next destination, they, in turn, asked if the truck could be set up for a one-day showing in Rockefeller Plaza outside the department's offices.
"Working on little or no notice, we figure we drew 75 to 100 people that afternoon," said Rick Zabinski, ITS program coordinator for New York State DOT. The event, which was not officially open to the public, drew lunchtime crowds from the surrounding office buildings.
"By our count, there were people from general CVO interests, general ITS people from our offices, people from the commissioner's office, state police, tax and finance people, and folks from the Department of Motor Vehicles who went through the truck," Zahinski said.
A car full of state troopers drove up shortly after the demonstration closed at 2 p.m. The officers said they had heard about the display and had rushed over from their barracks to take the tour. They asked if it would be possible to open up the trailer for a brief tour, and the facilitators accommodated them, Zabinski said.
"Everyone I asked thought the truck was impressive. The manner in which the information and the technologies are displayed is very well done. The technologies and the instructors were well-chosen. The whole thing is one package and nicely polished," said Zabinski. New York State DOT wanted to get the truck back for a commercial vehicle safety program to be held in Saratoga Springs in October, but "we were too late to get it for this year," he said.
"We'll get the kiosk for that meeting and try again for next year's meeting," he added. The strength of the project, according to Zabinski, is "the technologies and presentations help people visualize how the henefits apply to them."
"It makes my job easier," he added.
Having the technology on hand and operational "in context" can help purchasing officers hoping to sell skeptical executives in their company on a particular product or service, said Dennis McNichol, president of Dennis National Lease Co.
"The displays make the products look good. They demand a second, closer look," he added.
McNichol said his company already uses some of the technologies on display in the truck. "We've been using TripMaster for a long time." Nevertheless, he saw some products, specifically crash-avoidance technologies, with which he was not familiar.
"This truck is a good way to reach the motor carrier industry, especially if it is there in conjunction with another event," McNichol said.
Captain Norman Boskind, commander of the Commercial Vehicle Safety Division of the Maryland Transportation Authority Police, said the Technology Truck allows groups that often eye each other with suspicion in the best of times and hostility at other times to explore technologies and programs that are beneficial to both sides in a neutral, educational environment. The Technology Truck was the central display at a technology exposition held at the state's Perryville weigh station along Interstate 95 on July 17 and 18.
Over those two days, several hundred people -- law enforcement officials, legislators, officials from highway regulatory agencies, truck drivers stopping at the weigh station on business, and the public -- took the Technology Truck tour.
"We thought it [the truck] would be a good educational outreach tool. We thought it would be a good way to get the word out about electronic screening and clearance and other technologies. We were right," Boskind said.
Best of all, the truck provided a quiet environment for truck drivers and law enforcement officials to explore the technologies and, in some cases, dispel some of the contentious issues that have arisen around the technologies and their applications.
"The drivers have this impression that we [law enforcement) are like 'Big Brother' looking over their shoulder," said Boskind. "They feel we keep them from doing their jobs. "The truck helps us dispel the 'us versus them' mentality among drivers and law enforcement officials. The drivers were able to see technologies like the pen-based computers used for roadside inspections and ask questions of the inspectors there at the event.
"The conversation was encouraging. It was a good environment for everyone to ask questions," Boskind said.
There is a great deal of apprehension on all sides about what the new technologies will and will not be able to do, said Rita Bontz, president of the Independent Truckers and Drivers Association.
"Both sides -- the truckers and law enforcement -- have concerns although about different things. Drivers have the idea that the government will be able to watch more closely over their shoulders through the new technologies.
They tend to ignore the safety improvements the technology can bring through crash-avoidance systems, sleepy driver technology, blind spot mirrors. The industry is concerned that the technologies will lead to weight distance taxes or that their competitors will have access to their proprietary information," Bontz explained.
"The benefits override the concerns on both sides of the issue. The Technology Truck makes the case for the capabilities of the technologies. I wish every driver could see this truck," she said.
The Technology Truck also could prove a boon to the ITS/CVO industry as well. Brian Taylor, director of sales for International Road Dynamics of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, finds the project to be a very positive initiative.
"We have made a three-year commitment," Taylor said. "We expect to benefit from the exposure that this project provides us." The benefit is mutual, McCracken said. On future projects, OTA will use the network of business contacts and relationships that have developed to support the Technology Truck.
Organizations that would like to schedule the Technology Truck should submit a request listing dates, time, location, space and accessibility, and the location of power conduits to Zeborah English at the ITS/CVO Division of the Office of Motor Carriers.
Nels Ericson is a freelance writer in Alexandria, Va.