A new routing and monitoring system developed by European researchers for trucks carrying dangerous goods promises to make Europe's roads safer while saving haulers time and money.
Millions of trucks carrying billions of tons of toxic chemicals, highly flammable fuel and radioactive waste travel European roads each year, frequently passing through densely populated areas and using critical infrastructure, such as bridges and tunnels, with little guidance or oversight as to the safest route. An accident, a leak or a fire in any high-risk area could have catastrophic consequences, harming other road users and residents of nearby towns, as well as the environment and transport infrastructure.
"Dangerous goods often have to be transported by road for a variety of reasons, the most obvious example being the tanker trucks used to refill petrol stations. However, they often do not take the safest route to their destination," explains Dimitrios Tzovaras, a researcher at the Informatics and Telematics Institute of the Centre for Research and Technology Hellas (CERTH) in Greece.
Working in the EU-funded Good Route project, Tzovaras led a team of researchers from six European countries in developing a routing, monitoring and safety enforcement system for dangerous goods vehicles.
The platform combines information about road infrastructure and populated areas with real-time weather and traffic data from transport authorities to plot the safest itinerary for truck drivers to follow.
While in transit, the truck's position is monitored by GPS. A GPRS connection to a PDA in the truck's cab allows transport company operators or traffic authorities to dynamically change routing information on the fly in the event of a traffic jam or deviation, always choosing the safest alternatives.
"Transport companies usually plan journeys around the fastest or shortest route. We created an algorithm that calculates the safest route as well as taking into account costs and efficiency," Tzovaras says. "The goal is to minimize the consequences of a possible accident without excessively impacting journey times or transport costs."
Though often the safest route will not be the shortest or fastest, in certain circumstances providing greater assurances that a hazardous cargo will reach its destination safely would save haulers time and money.
Like many European tunnel operators, authorities in charge of managing the Gotthard Tunnel in Switzerland, where the Good Route project conducted a trial last year, prohibit most dangerous goods vehicles from passing through it. The ban is intended to increase safety in the tunnel, but it forces vehicles carrying hazardous substances onto secondary roads which increases journey times, transport costs and can take them through populated areas.
"The Good Route system helps ensure that a truck makes it through the tunnel safely. Sensors fitted to the vehicle continually monitor its weight and the state of its cargo, and this information is automatically sent to local control nodes at the tunnel entrance or at a toll station," Tzovaras says. "In this way, trucks carrying cargo that does not constitute a serious danger to safety inside the tunnel would be let through while only those deemed high risk would be diverted."
The technology was also tested by operators of the Fréjus Tunnel between Italy and France and on project partner Destia's bridges in Finland.
Information gathered by sensors onboard the truck could also be sent to police, allowing law enforcement officers to know remotely which trucks have broken speed limits or restrictions on driving time, for example.
"This would cut down on the number of trucks that are pulled over by police to be inspected, something that would save transporters time and money, so long as their drivers follow the rules," Tzovaras says.
However, even though transport companies stand to benefit by implementing safety-orientated guidance, monitoring and enforcement systems in their vehicles, not least by being able to promote themselves as more socially and environmentally responsible, Tzovaras believes that the technology will only be used extensively if it is mandated by public authorities.
"The cost and efficiency benefits for transporters are not great enough by themselves to offset the expense of implementation," the project coordinator admits. "Therefore, we think a top-down approach will be needed . . . and, for that, political will is required. Unfortunately, it will probably only happen after a serious accident."
Should that time arrive, the Good Route partners will have a tried and tested solution to propose.
The Good Route project received funding from the ICT strand of the EU's Sixth Framework Program for research.
View Good Route project video.
Download Good Route simulation demo.
Download Good Route Decision Support System simulation demo.
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