PUNTA GORDA — Nobody likes to be the sitting duck, particularly on a highway.
A Pennsylvania truck company will be demonstrating its autonomous truck tonight around 9 p.m., along I-75 on a closed lane just south of the Jones Loop Road exit. The purpose of this truck is to eliminate the job of a sitting duck in a type of truck used to protect highway workers while on the job.
Road work companies sometimes employ a type of truck called an attenuator, which has structures on the back of it to absorb the impact of any uncontrolled vehicle that crashes into the work site. This is to protect workers who might be, for example, painting lines or placing hazard cones on the road.
The attenuator trucks work well at stopping vehicles, which may be piloted by drunk or sleeping drivers, Theresa Delgado, spokesperson for Royal Truck & Equipment Inc., told the Sun. But the person driving the attenuator truck also gets hit.
"The problem with this (unautomated) truck is whoever has to drive it knows there's a good chance they're going to get hit, and injured," Delgado said.
One of their customers told Regal Truck his attenuator truck gets hit about once every 18 days.
So Royal Truck teamed up with military contractor Kratos Defense about three years ago. Kratos makes autonomous guidance systems. They are based in San Diego, but have an offices in Florida. They adapted their system for these trucks, Delgado said.
Contractors in states with higher regulations, such as Florida, use more attenuators, Delgado said. Sometimes, however, it's just because they don't want to see anymore tragedies.
A contractor told Royal Truck, "When someone gets hurt, in the middle of the night I get the phone call. I can't do this anymore," Delgado said.
So far, only six autonomous attenuators are out working in the field, Delgado said, all sold by Royal Truck. They're expensive, she said. One of the reasons there are not more, she said, is bad publicity on autonomous car systems.
In recent years, the Tesla sports cars have made the news with some spectacular and fatal crashes after well-heeled owners turned on their autonomous driving systems and then stopped paying attention. Royal Truck has a video of a Tesla slamming into an attentuator after the driver went to sleep and the Tesla systems failed to identify the truck. Often, the attenuator truck will save the car driver as well as the workers, she said, by absorbing the impact.
What makes this system different from Tesla? Kratos' systems have been around awhile, Delgado said. Plus, the attenuator trucks are used in a very limited fashion. They do not go faster than 20 mph, and usually slower than that. When in autonomous mode, they only work when paired with a lead vehicle that has a driver. That's the first truck with the equipment and workers. These two trucks are both equipped with Kratos technology.
Why Punta Gorda?
PK Contracting of Michigan asked for the demo and has work in the area, Delgado said, plus, Royal Truck owner and founder Rob Roy has a home here. Regal decided the most persuasive demo would be in the field rather than a video. Kratos found a location on a Florida highway that had a lane closure at night they could use.
The demo will slowly travel about five miles south in the closed lane.
Participants will gather at 8 p.m. at the Pilot Travel Center, 26505 Jones Loop Road, to prepare for the demonstration, which will begin at 9 p.m. at mile marker 160.