Highway to the Safety Zone

tom-motorcycle-web

VTTI Director Tom Dingus and one of the institute’s instrumented motorcycles.

It’s no secret that VTTI has been leading efforts in the realm of connected-automation, especially since we’ve been receiving major media hits focusing on the topic. And for good reason: since 2005, we have conducted more than $30 million in research projects focused on connected vehicles alone. We work with major auto manufacturers to develop and test many of the newer in-vehicle active safety systems that have components of connectivity. We’ve received a $1 million follow-on to a $3 million award from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to design the vehicle-to-vehicle communication integration framework. I’ve also written for ITS America about the importance of these next-generation technologies. I’ve discussed widespread implementation of automation, both its possibilities and barriers, as VTTI actively works with such industry leaders as GM and Google to address issues relating to the testing and development of automated-vehicle technologies. And, if you stay tuned online, you’ll see more about our newest connected-automation projects.

For this entry, though, I wanted to highlight VTTI’s work into more non-traditional vehicles.

Motorcycles, scooters, and bikes are obviously smaller, often more economical means of getting from one point to another. They are more fuel efficient than the traditional modes of travel and generally have less of an impact on the environment. But they are also easy to overlook in the transportation community, such as when other drivers are entering an intersection or checking a blind spot. This is particularly the case for motorcyclists: one in every seven fatalities occurring on U.S. roadways is a motorcycle rider*, even with significantly lower reported annual vehicle miles traveled. That is, the crash risks for riders are increasing while the crash risks for more traditional vehicle users are decreasing.

As it happens, May is Motorcycle Safety Awareness Month, a reminder to pay attention to all vehicles traveling the roadways, not just cars, trucks, and buses. And while a month dedicated to increasing awareness of motorcyclists is important, VTTI researchers are constantly working to increase riders’ safety and conspicuity. In fact, our Motorcycle Research Group began about seven years ago with the goal of applying VTTI’s research capabilities to real-world motorcycle riding. We’ve reconfigured our study methods to accurately capture motorcyclists’ perspectives of transportation issues, creating a mini-data acquisition system, or MiniDAS, that unobtrusively records participant riders traveling in the real world. The data we collect using this system can essentially help us determine crash risks for motorcyclists and develop countermeasures that decrease such risks.

Virginia Tech Transportation Institute motorcycle study. Smart Road.

VTTI researchers test motorcycle-based studies on the Virginia Smart Road. photo by Logan Wallace

Because of their revolutionary work, our researchers were tapped by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation to conduct the first large-scale naturalistic study of motorcyclists. During the study, 100 riders from California, Arizona, Virginia, and Florida had their bikes instrumented for 12 months. Data collection was recently completed, and researchers are processing the results to determine the greatest issues facing motorcyclists on the road today. Efforts are also underway to conduct a second naturalistic study, this time sponsored by NHTSA and including 160 riders in Southern California.

Connected-vehicle technology for motorcycles is also being advanced at VTTI. Connected-vehicle technology essentially allows communication among vehicles, infrastructure, and/or devices. The video below is a great representation of how VTTI is using connected motorcycles. Currently, researchers are actively characterizing the performance of such technologies instrumented on motorcycles, from mounting configurations to achieving optimal communications. Among the first applications deployed to capitalize on connected-vehicle technology, crash warning systems can be of enormous benefit to transportation users. But, until VTTI began developing and testing these systems using four of the first equipped motorcycles for such purposes, no corresponding research or deployed system was available for riders. These connected-motorcycle projects, and more, are being conducted under our University Transportation Center.

The safety of the transportation community is VTTI’s main goal, and it naturally informs our concern about the increasing number of motorcyclist fatalities and injuries. But motorcycle safety is also a personal matter here. Many in our work community are riders themselves, including myself, who once took a cross-country motorcycle trip at the age of 17 as a birthday present from my parents.

It is our hope that this month spurs all drivers to be aware at all times of small-vehicle riders; it is our goal to continue ensuring the safety of all transportation users by constantly breaking new ground in transportation research.

*NHTSA Safety Facts, 2012

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