Utah and Georgia install tech that lets roads talk

Both states are experimenting with a new technology that flags congestion, black ice and spots vulnerable to potholes—and eventually would alert drivers in real-time

State Route 190, the two-lane highway that snakes through Big Cottonwood Canyon up to ski country east of Salt Lake City, can be a nightmare. Hairpin curves and unpredictable winter weather frequently cause crashes that snarl traffic for miles. In spring, freeze-thaw cycles gouge the asphalt with potholes that pose safety risks and damage cars.

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But what if cars could talk to 190? And what if 190 could talk back, highlighting everything from imminent dangers to worsening congestion? The result would be safer, speedier and smoother travel, transportation experts say. And it may represent the future of roads across the U.S.

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For officials at the Utah Department of Transportation, so-called vehicle-to-everything or V2X technology offers the promise of achieving the seemingly unattainable goal of dramatically reducing crash deaths, even if that smart-road vision is still a couple of decades down the road.

“We as a department are convinced that we won’t get to zero without this technology. This is transformative,” says Blaine Leonard, UDOT’s transportation technology engineer. “We just can’t educate around all the human error. People are people.”

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that safety applications made possible by V2X could avert or ease the severity of 80% of all crashes that don’t involve impairment. That could save many lives, without having to wait for self-driving cars to ferry everyone around. Motor vehicle crashes resulted in an estimated 36,120 deaths last year.

Vehicles travel along canyons on a highway in Utah. (iStock)

Here is how V2X works: Cars equipped with special radios emit a constant stream of anonymized data—speed, tire traction level, windshield-wiper status and much more—up to 10 times a second. Roadside sensors suck up all the data, so it can be analyzed to see what is happening with individual cars and on the road generally. The system then issues alerts that can appear on dashboard screens, or perhaps on people’s smartphones, in time for drivers to slow down, change lanes or take other action. A tiny number of cars already come with these radios.

“The message can be displayed to the driver: ‘Watch out, there’s a crash ahead,’” says Chris Armstrong, vice president at Panasonic Corp. of North America.

The company has partnered with UDOT on a phased, five-year project to demonstrate V2X capability using its Cirrus cloud-computing platform. About 70 roadside units installed by Panasonic are listening for data from passing cars in the Salt Lake City region, including in Big Cottonwood Canyon, along Interstate 80 and near Park City.

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Panasonic, in partnership with the Georgia Department of Transportation and a nonprofit group called the Ray, recently also launched a project on an 18-mile stretch of Interstate 85 in southwest Georgia. Five of six planned roadside units there are in place and ingesting data from connected cars.

Though smartphone apps already give drivers real-time traffic information, Mr. Armstrong says, V2X can send rapid alerts tailored for specific cars, while also diagnosing recurring problems on stretches of road “so that we can then predict it and prevent it.” In addition, connected cars have the ability to talk to one another, providing additional safety benefits.

“The technology is there, it is being deployed around the country,” says Greg Winfree, who directs the Texas A&M Transportation Institute and led the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Office of Research and Technology as assistant secretary during the Obama administration. More than 1,000 infrastructure V2X devices have been installed at the roadside in 25 states, according to the federal government, and more than 18,000 vehicles have aftermarket V2X devices in them. As part of a large test project in Ann Arbor, Mich., some 2,200 vehicles outfitted with V2X devices communicate with 75 roadside units spread around the city at intersections, crosswalks and curves.

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That is a drop in the bucket relative to the number of cars on roads today, but that may change relatively soon. In April, the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, which represents the manufacturers of most cars and light trucks sold in the U.S., said the industry is committed to deploying at least 5 million V2X radios in the next five years.

In Big Cottonwood Canyon, which stretches 16 miles, eight roadside units were installed on poles in April. At the moment, the data flow is one way, from vehicles to the units and then on to UDOT’s traffic operation center, officials say. About three dozen agency vehicles are equipped with data-sharing radios, and some regularly drive through the canyon sharing their acceleration rate, anti-lock brake status, even whether their hazard flashers are on. In a later phase, messages will be sent back to vehicles, probably flashing on a dashboard-mounted tablet.

In Atlanta, the Georgia DOT has installed V2X radios at a few hundred intersections, with many more planned. The agency hopes the technology could one day help prevent the often-serious crashes caused by red light-running, says Alan Davis, assistant state traffic engineer.

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The radios would be able to predict if a car was likely to blow through a stoplight, based on factors such as its direction and speed, he says, then alert both the driver and other drivers in the area: “Hey, watch out, somebody is running a red light.” The system might even be able to stop the light-running car before it reached the intersection by applying the brakes, he says.

Mr. Davis says he initially had doubts about the technology. “Can it really be that effective?” he recalls thinking. Now he is on board. “I’m a believer for sure of its potential now,” he says.

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