In years past, drivers have relied on old-fashioned maps to guide them along their routes. A new technological upgrade is designed to make their jobs easier. (Emily Wolf/The Beacon)

With winter in Kansas City, Missouri, comes snow. And with snow comes the full force of the KC snowplow crew. Responsible for clearing hundreds of routes each day, drivers have for years been forced to rely on old-fashioned maps to guide them. 

“I rode with a driver last season and he literally had a paper map spread across the dashboard,” said Maggie Green, public information officer for the city. “And he was like ‘All right, Maggie, take the pen and mark off where we’ve been down.’”

This year, drivers will have a new tool to help them clear the streets: digital maps that update as they drive. More than 100 trucks will be outfitted with an electronic tablet, which will display whichever route the driver inputs and track their progress using location data. 

The technology is primarily designed to help drivers identify which routes they’ve already plowed, and where on their route they need to go next.

“When you get in that vehicle and you run over those routes, the GPS tells you where you’re at and when you’re on the street, it will change to a different color,” said Eric Falk, a senior registered engineer with the Public Works Department. Streets that haven’t been driven on yet will be marked blue; streets that a plow has already gone through will be marked purple.

A traditional map lies beside the new technology snowplow drivers will be using to guide their routes. (Emily Wolf/The Beacon)

This is the city’s first year using the technology, but officials said residents shouldn’t notice much of a difference in service. 

“This is functioning pretty darn well,” Falk said. “I’m sure with any technology we’ll have some issues. But for the most part, hopefully, drivers will see the difference in the colors and they’ll be like, ‘Oh, look, I didn’t get there.’ And that will hopefully reduce the number of missed spots.”

For the initial rollout, the Public Works Department is prioritizing drivers who clear residential snow routes. Green said Kansas City has about 3,300 miles of those. Arterial routes are handled by larger plows and span 2,700 miles. 

“When you’re up in different parts of the city it gets rather confusing when you get turned around,” Falk said. “I’ve been out there plenty of times, like, ‘What the heck?’”

Working on future improvements to Kansas City snowplow tech

Earlier this year, the Public Works Department committed to staying in a neighborhood and making multiple passes through its streets to get them fully cleared. While useful for residents, this more comprehensive approach creates a new wrinkle for the digital technology. 

Falk said department staff are working with the technology company to develop a solution. It may involve developing multiple color codes in addition to the current blue and purple framework. The city already uses a color-coded system to inform residents how recently a road was plowed.

A few Kansas City snowplows sit ready for action in case of inclement weather. (City of Kansas City, Missouri, Public Works Department)

Falk said the city would eventually like to use the technology to generate turn-by-turn directions for drivers on their routes. Right now it is able to guide drivers from point A to B, but sometimes erroneously directs drivers to streets they’ve already been over.

“I don’t think anybody really has done navigation, turn by turn navigation like this,” Falk said.

The department is hopeful the navigational capabilities will be ready to use sometime this season. 

“This will be a multiyear process, to hopefully get the technology better and better,” Falk said.

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Emily Wolf was a local government accountability reporter with a focus on telling meaningful stories through data at The Kansas City Beacon. She was a Report for America corps member.