MDOT plow data drives faster snow and ice removal

Fast facts:

  • MDOT started installing automatic vehicle location (AVL) devices on its winter road maintenance equipment in 2013. These systems report where each truck is, and they gather data from other sensors.
  • MDOT feeds that information, plus additional pavement and weather data and forecasts, into its maintenance decision support system (MDSS).
  • AVL and MDSS have helped MDOT reduce salt consumption. MDOT spends about $30 million on salt in an average year. 

December 12, 2016 -- Connected vehicle technology is helping MDOT clear snow and ice from roadways faster -- making winter a little easier for drivers and saving taxpayers money.

            MDOT started installing GPS-based automatic vehicle location (AVL) devices on its winter road maintenance equipment in 2013. These systems report where each truck is, and they gather data from other sensors to report details like atmospheric conditions, camera images, and speed and salt application rates for each vehicle.

            MDOT feeds that information, plus additional pavement and weather data and forecasts, into its maintenance decision support system (MDSS), which it uses to better plan for winter storms. It's a powerful combination for managing plowing and salting operations. ''Monitoring snowplow speeds and material application helps us apply efficient salting practices,'' said Melissa Howe, region support engineer for MDOT's Maintenance Field Services Section. ''Maintenance supervisors can also easily adjust shifts based on the timing of a storm so we have plows on the roads precisely when they're needed, adding people proactively rather than reactively.''

            MDOT has installed AVL/GPS on all of its plows and some county road commissions are also using the technology. With multiple systems in use, MDOT and counties are collectively researching how to expand the deployment of this technology while coordinating and standardizing its use.

            AVL and MDSS have helped MDOT reduce salt consumption, contributing to an estimated 2.2 percent increase in efficiency. MDOT spends about $30 million on salt in an average year, so even modest reductions in salt use save a lot of money. There's more to come: MDOT operations and maintenance engineers have improved the system interface to show more detail and more accurate locations, and they expect even greater efficiencies as MDOT gains experience with the system.

            With cost-savings and safety in mind, MDOT promotes a number of best practices to boost salt use efficiency during winter maintenance. The department is encouraging its drivers to drive slower when possible while applying salt so more stays on the road. MDOT is also investigating new application systems to keep the salt from bouncing out of driving lanes. Other ''sensible salting'' solutions include setting application guidelines for winter conditions, using weather stations to better target areas that will benefit most from salt, and pre-wetting the salt so it sticks to the road and starts working faster.

            In the interest of safety, there are some times when MDOT and its contract county road commissions and municipal public works departments will hold off on the salt. During normal winter conditions, when temperatures are between 20 and 30 degrees, salt works great for melting snow and ice so plows can more easily blade it from the roadway. Below 20 degrees, however, and salt takes longer to work, and may increase the speed at which roads refreeze. Below 10 degrees, the roads refreeze even faster, making them icier and slipperier than if salt hadn’t been applied in the first place. In those conditions, it's safer to use sand instead.

            Working together with its county road commission partners on a number of fronts, MDOT will continue to improve the way it responds to winter's annual snowy, icy attack on Michigan roads. The goal is safer driving and cost-savings for Michigan taxpayers.

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