MILTON, Ont. – It’s raining, it’s dark, and you’re squinting to see the lines on the road and the signs ahead of you.
We’ve all been there, but if you’ve ever cursed your inability to see road markings in the dark or bad weather, you don’t necessarily need to blame advancing age or declining sight, say engineers at 3M. Instead, you should blame the sign technology.
A 53-foot trailer containing the best and brightest in sign and paint engineer is touring North America for the 3M Roadshow. The truck was in the GTA this week and will make an appearance at the Transportation Association of Canada Conference Sept. 30 – Oct. 3 in Saskatoon, Sask.
The Roadshow is targeting municipal councilors and other government officials to bring attention to the fact that in most areas of the country the signs on the road are using technology that’s nearly 80 years old.
“Can you imagine using a TV from 1940?” says Doug Boccabella, marketing for 3M.
Three types of signs, road paint, and reflective tape used for construction barrels and other marking are currently being used across the country. Designated either T1, T3/4, or T11, the types are rated by brightness and reflectiveness.
The T1 type of sign was invented in about 1940 and is still commonly used by municipalities for road work, street signs and stop signs.
Boccabella says some municipalities have begun to adopt the T3/4 type of signs for things like construction barrels, but the brightest technology – T11 – has yet to be adopted by most municipalities. Provinces like British Columbia, Alberta, and Quebec have a higher uptake than other areas, but provinces like Ontario have yet to see adoption of the brightest signs.
To show councilors the difference between the technology currently in use and the newest version of available road paint and signs, the 3M travelling trailer not only displays the two side-by-side but puts visitors in a lab-like setting.
In the “lab” guests sit in the driver position in room painted black to look like a dark night. Then, water pours for the ceiling on the road lines ahead, mimicking a dark and stormy night. As your “headlights” shine on the rainy spot in front of you, suddenly many of the freshly painted lines become hard if not impossible to see.
With a white core and greater reflectivity, the brightest of the paint and signs return up to 58% of the available light. While 3M didn’t have numbers available for how much light is returned by T1-type signs, it was significantly less.
Even on a bright clear day 3M says the signs are important for getting the attention of drivers who may be distracted or suffering from highway hypnosis.
That difference in brightness also comes with a cost – something 3M says is the most significant barrier to adoption. T3/4 signs can cost 10 per cent more than the T1 signs, with T11 signs costing 30% more than the T3/4 signs.
Municipal contracts are awarded on an RFP bid system with the lowest bids necessarily getting the work. That legal requirement makes it hard for contractors using the more expensive materials to get the work awarded to them.
Boccabella says the 3M roadshow is aiming to get those in government to see the safety benefits to adding brighter signs and paint to the roadways and make the technology part of any request for work.
The roadshow is also demonstrating how roads of the future will work with autonomous vehicles, showing off “road closed” signs that look like any other sign to the naked eye, but contain an embedded QR code that can be read by an automated vehicle’s infrared sensors.
The signs give the basic information necessary to the naked eye, allowing human drivers to read the information they would normally get from the sign. Autonomous vehicles can get much more information, however, because the embedded code is dynamic.
Boccabella says the signs could impart weather conditions, GPS coordinates for a detour or much more information to the car, giving it specific instructions for how to operate.
Just in the demonstration stage now, there are four of the signs on Michigan Highway I75 for testing.
The coded signs are also being demonstrated with the T11 sign technology – something 3M says will play a key role in getting autonomous vehicles on the road, as consistency is key.
Autonomous cars learn as they go, adapting to road conditions and learning to become better drivers over time, much like human drivers learn. Learning how to see and read signs is a key part of that process, and for the machine to learn it needs consistency.
Consistent signage – including brightness levels – will make the learning process that much easier, says Boccabella. An important step for commercial vehicles which may read signs in several provinces over the course of a single day.
After leaving Ontario the roadshow headed to North Carolina for it’s next stop. It will be traversing North America for the rest of the summer and into the fall.