Smart roads to ‘talk’ with vehicles to reduce traffic congestion while increasing safety

Scott Sutherland
November 6, 2012

Even with advances in GPS technology, and all the traffic-tracking websites and apps we have at our disposal, we still suffer through unexpected traffic jams. However, according to a new report, those days may soon be a thing of the past as tests begin on a new system that would have roads and vehicles communicating with each other about conditions, allowing drivers to adapt their routes on the fly to avoid problem areas.

Two test-beds have been set up, one along Interstate 66 and on Routes 29 and 50, in Fairfax, Virginia, and another in southwest Virginia, along Route 460, with instruments along the sides of the roads. These instruments communicate with the Connected Vehicle/Infrastructure University Transportation Center (CVI-UTC), which is run by a consortium of the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, the University of Virginia's Center for Transportation Studies and Morgan State University, sending back data on traffic congestion, conditions such as wet or icy roads, construction, emergency vehicles and pavement condition.

"The Northern Virginia test bed is a tremendous asset with respect to testing and deployment of research findings," said Tom Dingus, the director of the Transportation Center, who is from the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. "Key elements of this test bed are strong partnerships with local agencies, including law enforcement and transit providers, particularly the Fairfax County Transit Authority."

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"The Fairfax County test bed experiences the very real and significant transportation challenges in terms of congestion, safety, and environmental impact that are of concern nationwide," said Professor Brian Smith, who is the consortium leader from the University of Virginia. "Through this test bed, our research team will have the opportunity to develop, test, and demonstrate tangible connected vehicles applications that will have a positive impact on the travelers' experience."

A dozen vehicles — 10 cars, a tractor-trailer and a bus — have been outfitted with sensors that include collision, blind-spot, road-departure and lane-change, and curve-speed warning systems, and information systems that will interact with the roadside sensors and download information to the Transportation Center.

Also part of this project is the Virginia Smart Road, a 9-km long limited-access highway between Interstate 81 and Route 460 in Blacksburg, Virginia that is currently under construction. According to the Virginia Department of Transportation website, this test facility will include:

  • All-weather testing capabilities — snow, ice, rain — using 75 snow-making towers.
  • Variable lighting section to study effects of lighting technologies on driving visibility and ITS equipment.
  • Advanced communications system including a local-area wireless network interfaced with a fiber-optic backbone.
  • Varied terrain, including a six percent grade, a range of elevations, and several bridges, all of which will provide extensive sensor-testing parameters.
  • Experimental pavement sections — both concrete and asphalt to assist in the characterization of pavement lifetime, long- and short-term performance, behavior under dynamic loading, and instrumentation assessment.
  • Turnarounds at each end of the test bed to allow for continuous driving.

"The test beds provide a variety of roadway types, topography, and driver types that allow us to exercise connected-vehicle systems across a range of environments under controlled conditions, so that a high number of equipped vehicle interactions will occur," said Professor Andrew Farkas, the Morgan State consortium leader, who is director of the National Transportation Center.

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Some of the research currently being conducted at the CVI-UTC involve the use of adaptable stop/yield signs that would change based on traffic needs, adaptive road lighting that would dim or shut off when not needed, intersection management using data from the vehicles in the area, systems that would advise drivers of the best speed for greatest fuel economy based on road conditions, an 'intelligent' awareness system to keep road workers safe, emergency vehicle-to-vehicle communications systems, freeway merge management systems, infrastructure-vehicle communications for pavement assessment, safety and congestion information and pedestrian and cyclist safety systems.