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The self-driving construction vehicles, fitted with special rear-end crash barriers and lights, have been successfully demonstrated, driving using GPS waypoints and following a lead car, mimicking its path, braking and speed.

The specialised crash trucks are fitted with large signs to warn road users of the presence of workers and are used to protect construction crews resurfacing roads, painting lines, inspecting bridges or installing traffic signals.

‘Literally waiting to be struck’
Impact attenuators – or crash cushions – on the rear of the vehicles, which absorb impacts and protect workers, have been credited with saving lives. But the drivers of the trucks are inevitably placed in harm’s way, “literally waiting to be struck,” said Robert Roy, president of Royal Truck & Equipment, maker of the autonomous trucks.

“Any time a driver can be removed from these vehicles in a very dangerous situation, and if the vehicle’s struck, there’s nobody inside of it to receive the damage or the injuries, that’s measuring success,” Roy said.

Two of the autonomous vehicles will make their debut at highway construction sites in Florida by the end of the year under a state department of transportation demonstration program.

‘The future of surface transportation’
Crash trucks have been in use for 30 years. A recent study in the Journal of the Transportation Research Board, found they cut work-zone injuries and fatalities from rear-end crashes by almost half.

“Connected and autonomous vehicles in general are viewed as the future of surface transportation, and this technology may be one of the first ways in which it gets commercialised,” said Gerald Ullman of Texas A&M’s Transportation Institute, author of the study.

Technology companies including Google, Uber and Apple have been developing and testing autonomous vehicles on some US roads, while car makers such as Volvo have demonstrated systems capable of creating autonomous road trains or cars that can find carparks and park themselves.

Daimler Trucks recently demonstrated the first self-driving tractor-trailer to be licensed on public roads, but the company said it would be years before a self-driving truck hits the market.

The Royal driverless crash truck is being developed in partnership with technology firm Micro Systems, which supplies unmanned vehicles to the US military.

Royal said the terms of the agreement with Florida’s transportation department are still being negotiated, but that trucks should hit roads by the end of the year.

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