Published Friday

February 9, 2001

High-Tech Plows Are Breaking Into Snow Business

Joysticks. Satellite communications. And plenty of horsepower. 

Welcome to snowplows in the new millennium. 

A handful of state transportation departments are souping up their snowplows with Japanese and European technology to clear roads faster, better and more safely. 

A coalition of snow-belt states, including Michigan, Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, is experimenting with the "superplows." 

"This isn't the sort of stuff you can go down to the auto parts dealer and say, 'I'd like a special snow truck,'" said Dave Vieth, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation's chief of highway operations. 
A look at new snowplow technology
  • High-intensity strobe lights. 

  • Global positioning systems that allow dispatchers to track every plow. 

  • Onboard computers to record how much sand and salt are dropped. Drivers currently must fill out reports by hand when their shifts end. 

  • Infrared thermometers to record air and ground temperatures, which can determine what salt mix to drop. 

  • Friction detectors to determine how slippery roads have become. 

  • Transparent passenger doors so drivers can see passing traffic. 

  • Joystick and voice-activated controls. 

  • Spoilers to deflect snow under the plows, not into traffic. 

  • Onboard cameras to record traffic movements to the rear. 

  • More lighting on side plows. 

  • Tanks containing up to three types of deicing liquids for different temperature levels. 

  • Sources: Wisconsin Department of Transportation, Iowa Department of Transportation, Minnesota Department of Transportation
  • "Even the drivers, when they see them the first time, are like, 'Wow, what are we going to do with this thing?'" Vieth said. 

    The prototypes may look like the average snowplow, but inside it's a different story. 

    Gone are the days of CB radios and dashboard levers. The high-tech versions have onboard computers, 6-inch satellite dishes, ultrabright strobe lights, video cameras and tanks with three different de-icing liquids, one for nearly every temperature. 

    Pistol-grip joysticks control the plows' blades. Global positioning systems and computer downlinks allow dispatchers to track each truck's location down to the inch, including how many plows are in contact with the road and how much salt each driver has dumped. Instead of passenger doors, there are clear plastic shields so drivers can see plows on the side and passing traffic. 

    "It's like going from a typewriter to a computer," said John Scharffbillig, highway-maintenance supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Transportation who has driven snowplows nearly 20 years. 

    The new plows also pack sensors to track road and air temperatures. Special speed controllers match the truck's speed with salt dispensation. 

    Some prototypes don't require hands. Their equipment is voice-activated. 

    Most important, transportation officials say, the plows feature spoilers that funnel snow that the plows kick up under the trucks instead of into traffic. Video cameras track cars behind the plow. 

    The clouds of snow are often blamed for causing collisions between cars and plows. Last winter, Wisconsin recorded 75 plow-vehicle crashes. 

    Lee Smithson, an Iowa Department of Transportation researcher, moonlights as the national snow and ice coordinator for the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials. He has written several articles on the subtleties of snowplowing. 

    He traveled to Germany, Austria, Japan and Sweden with a national research group to find the best snow combat strategies in each country. The spoilers came from German snowplows, he said, and the global positioning system from Japanese trucks. 

    Each truck costs about $110,000. States are implementing the technology slowly as transportation officials experiment with different versions. Minnesota and Michigan use pieces of the technology in their fleets. Wisconsin has eight prototype vehicles in eight different counties - Barron, Columbia, Florence, Kenosha, Manitowoc, Portage, Taylor and Trempealeau. Eighteen of the new trucks are on Iowa roads, all in one county. 

    Smithson said he hopes the super plows will reduce the nearly $2billion spent in the United States each year directly on snow and ice control by conserving time, paper reports and salt dumps. 

    The new plows are just the beginning. Researchers are still perfecting onboard plow sensors to detect how slippery a road could become, as well as chemistry packs to test the effectiveness of salt in different temperatures. 

    Also on the drawing board are heads-up displays similar to systems in fighter jets. A computer will project a graphic rendition of the road on the windshield using global positioning systems and magnetic strips embedded in the road, essentially allowing snowplow drivers and emergency personnel to drive blind in blizzards. 

    But the technology is nowhere near perfect. Just ask Jerry Pich, the garage manager for the Barron County Highway Department in Wisconsin. 

    His department got a voice-activated plow in December. But no one has been able to get it out of the garage. 

    "It's not working right," he said. "They're still getting the bugs out."