Montana State University

MSU’s WTI launches program to study safe integration of semi-autonomous trucks

May 22, 2017 -- MSU News Service

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BOZEMAN – The Western Transportation Institute at Montana State University is launching a program to study how to safely integrate driverless technology into the nation’s trucking fleet.

Similar to the driverless cars being developed by Google and others, self-driving trucks would use sophisticated computers and GPS technology to navigate roadways. Within a decade, the technology is likely to be applied in semi-autonomous truck convoys, or “platoons,” in which trucks equipped with self-driving technology would be programmed to follow human-piloted trucks, according to Craig Shankwitz, a senior research engineer in WTI’s Connected Vehicle Initiative.

The platoon concept is designed to retain the acumen of the experienced human driver while reducing operating costs by eliminating the need for drivers in the following units, Shankwitz explained.

“Through the proper interaction of humans and autonomous systems, both safety and operational costs could be improved,” said Shankwitz, who is leading the new program, called the Collaborative Human-Automated Platooned Trucks Alliance (CHAPTA).

Given the rapid development of driverless technology, CHAPTA fills a need for a research and testing forum that works collaboratively with the trucking industry, regulators, law enforcement and others to ensure that the technology is safely and effectively applied, Shankwitz said.

“Driverless technology is coming, and CHAPTA aims to smooth and accelerate its use by actively addressing human factors, operations, workforce development and institutional issues,” Shankwitz said. Project members will play a significant role in guiding research priorities, he added.

CHAPTA will be housed on the MSU campus and will utilize unique WTI facilities. A driving simulator at WTI will be used to provide truck drivers a realistic experience of using the driverless technology in a platoon setting, while allowing WTI researchers to test variables such as the spacing distance between truck units.

The project will also use WTI’s TRANSCEND test track in Lewistown. That facility, which consists of four miles of highway-like, closed-circuit roadway, will allow WTI researchers to test actual semi-autonomous truck platoons in a controlled environment under a variety of weather conditions.

According to Nic Ward, director of the Center for Health and Safety Culture at WTI and a professor of mechanical and industrial engineering in MSU’s College of Engineering, human factors are particularly important in applying the new technology.

“The new technology fundamentally changes the role of the driver and introduces the need for more information so that the driver understands and has the right amount of trust with the overall system,” Ward said.

“The time is now,” said WTI Executive Director Steve Albert. “You can’t open up a newspaper or read a story on the internet without seeing an autonomous vehicle headline. We need to work together on this for the safety of our roadways.”

WTI, which is housed in MSU’s College of Engineering, will host an introductory webinar about CHAPTA on June 6 at 11 a.m. EDT. Anyone interested in participating in the program is strongly encouraged to attend the webinar, Shankwitz said.

More information about the webinar and about how to become a project member can be found on the CHAPTA website:

Contact: Craig Shankwitz, Western Transportation Institute, (406) 994-6030 or