Center News /
May 25, 2021

ISA-TOPE: Innovative, Semi-Autonomous Trucks and Off-highway Powered Equipment

Webster’s online dictionary defines an isotope as: “any of two or more species of atoms of a chemical element with the same atomic number and nearly identical chemical behavior but with differing atomic mass or mass number and different physical properties” (“Isotope”). One way the TCOE would modify that definition for ISA-TOPE is: any of two or more types of autonomous vehicles with the same general components and similar function of autonomous automobiles but on vehicles of higher mass and unique functionality. ISA-TOPE is actually an acronym that stands for Innovative, Semi-Autonomous Trucks and Off-highway Powered Equipment. It is an acronym that was coined and used in the submission of an NSF grant by the TCOE that was recently awarded. We now begin the work of the project. The project has 5 main deliverables

  1. A training schedule and program for at least 8 OEM ISA-TOPE Professional Development training sessions
  2. A collection of 6 different Virtual Outreach Events (videos) with a focus on connecting with diverse (rural, female, and under-represented) students.
  3. Open Educational Resources, college-level ISA-TOPE curriculum covering approximately 30 hours of instruction/labs.
  4. Provide hands-on, real world ISA-TOPE exposure to various schools around the state of Minnesota.
  5. Aid in the development of a national, industry-recognized autonomous technology certification process.

As we initiate this process, we have had, and will have, multiple dialogues with diesel instructors and OEM distributors to determine the best type of technology to acquire and integrate into this project that will bring the most value to the schools utilizing the technology. We will utilize the annual MTTIA conference ( as our primary location for professional development training. The TCOE will also use the acquired ISA-TOPE technology to develop multiple outreach events (videos) that can be utilized at various outreach activities throughout the state or beyond. The videos are reusable and can provide a consistent message to students about the level of technology in the diesel, truck, or equipment technician and truck driver programs offered at Minnesota State Colleges. Curriculum will also be developed for diesel technician and truck driver training related to autonomous technology. This curriculum will be utilized at schools, in conjunction with the acquired technology, to provide students with usable technology in real-world applications. The TCOE will also collaborate with various industry leading associations (i.e. ASE or AED) and aid in the development of national, industry-recognized, industry-influenced, standards that can lead to certifications for both technicians and students.

This project addresses the technician and driver shortage through outreach, and is designed to increase the knowledge of graduating students, but this project is important because autonomous technology is important. Autonomous technology saves lives, improves safety, and increases industry efficiencies.

“In 2018, 36,560 people died in motor vehicle crashes. Research shows that the vast number of vehicle crashes are tied to human error. New driver assistance technologies hold the potential to reduce the number of crashes and save thousands of lives a year.” (Driver Assistance, 2020). The National Transportation Safety Board has identified increasing implementation of collision avoidance systems in all new highway vehicles as one of its 10 most wanted items (2019-2020 Most Wanted List). Between 45% and 50% of new heavy-duty commercial highway vehicles sold today are equipped with AEB (automated emergency braking), or other ADAS (Advanced Driver Assistance Systems) with many of the vehicles being ordered by the largest carriers that have already seen the benefits of reduced at-fault rear-end accidents (Cannon and Huff, 2020)

Ritchie Huang, Daimler Trucks’ Executive Manager of Advanced Safety Systems and Autonomous Driving, said the OEM believes that AEB and ADAS could address 69% of all crashes (Cannon and Huff, 2020). During the 2020 FMCSA Safety Summit, a panel of industry executives from several large carriers discussed the value of ADAS on commercial vehicles equipped with that technology in their fleet, specifically in reducing at-fault rear-end collisions. The following table documents the data they shared:

Table 1 (Cannon and Huff, 2020); (“Top 100” A6-A18)

Autonomous Technology also exists in off-highway trucks, along with construction, agriculture, mining, and material handling equipment. Some level of automated technology (i.e. auto steering to keep crop line) exists on the majority of new agriculture and construction equipment, and is considered the market standard (Klug, et al., 2019), however the reason for adopting autonomous technology appears to differ slightly in on-highway and off-highway applications. Increasing safety is often the primary reason given by trucking companies to adopt autonomous technology. By reducing the severity and number of collisions between their trucks and the general public, these companies usually realize reduced operating costs and increased efficiencies. For companies utilizing off-highway autonomous technology, reducing total operating costs and increasing efficiencies, through a reduced number of needed operators and/or reduced project completion times, were the first and second respectively ranked reasons for adopting autonomous technology in off-highway applications, with increased safety being ranked 3rd (Klug, et al., 2019). According to Cameron Clark, Business Area Manager for Trimble, a conglomeration of companies specializing in autonomous-related technologies, “with the [autonomous] technology we have today, experienced [construction and agricultural equipment] operators run 41 percent faster and 75 percent more accurate” (How Autonomous, 2020).

Vehicle autonomous technology is advancing quickly. While automotive autonomous technology has been advancing since as early as the 1920’s, autonomous technology in trucks and other commercial vehicles, while getting a slower start, seems to be advancing at a much faster pace. Tesla’s AutoPilot program, introduced around 2014, is arguably the most advanced production automotive driving system on the market, and is rivaled by other automotive manufacturers, but it’s functionality ranges from level 5 (Smart Summon) to, apparently, level 2 based on recent e-mails between Elon Musk and the state of California (Morris, 2021). New Flyer Bus, according to their website (, started the autonomous journey in 2019, but they have recently announced the release of an SAE level 4 autonomous electric transit bus.
What does the future hold? Nobody can be exactly sure. One thing is almost certain. It will involve change. Our drivers and technicians of tomorrow need to be ready. The NSF ISA-TOPE project helps take steps to make that a reality.


2019-2020 Most Wanted List: Increase Implementation of Collision Avoidance Systems in All New Highway Vehicles. National Transportation Safety Board, January 2019, Accessed 10 May, 2021.

Cannon, Jason, and Aaron Huff. “Early Adopters of Crash Mitigation Tech See Accidents Decline”. Commercial Carrier Journal, August 6, 2020, Accessed 10 May, 2021.

Driver Assistance Technologies. United States Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Accessed 10 May, 2021.

“How Autonomous Construction Equipment Will Revolutionize the Industry.” CONEXPO-CON/AGG, March 13, 2020, Accessed 10 May, 2021.

“Isotope.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 10 May, 2021.

Krug, Alexander, et al. Autonomous machines in the fast lane?, Arthur D Little, April, 2019, Accessed 10 May, 2021.

Morris, James. “Why Is Tesla’s Full Self-Driving Only Level 2 Autonomous?” Forbes, Mar 13, 2021,07:40am EST, Accessed 10 may, 2021.

“Top 100: For-Hire Carriers.” Transport Topics, Week of June 22, 2020, pp. A6-A18.