The I-35W bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis collapsed during rush hour on Aug. 1, plunging dozens of cars and their occupants into the water. The calamity put an ugly spotlight on the U.S. Department of Transportation regarding road safety, and created an urgency to incorporate technology that can help reduce highway fatalities.

One vital technology is bidirectional vehicle communications, which lets vehicles communicate with roadside devices and other vehicles to exchange data as needed. Such a capability not only could have been used to enhance traffic management on the bridge, but it also could help shrink the alarming number of traffic fatalities on U.S. roads. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 42,642 people were killed on U.S. highways last year, an average of 3500 per month.

Experts say that taking just 10% of automobiles out of a traffic jam could increase the average speed of the traffic flow by 50%. And even if a small number of automobiles could be warned about potential congestion ahead and be diverted by either direct communications or electronic signs, it could have a substantial impact on traffic congestion. Therefore, the DOT sees bidirectional vehicle communications as having a major benefit for both safety — by pre-emptive action to avoid accidents — and for monitoring fuel efficiency and emissions.

“One of the stated goals of such intelligent vehicle highway systems is to reduce the instances of accidents,” said Dave Alexander, principal analyst for ABI Research. “The other benefit is having a lot of information about where traffic is flowing and even to the level of warning about road conditions.”

Work began on bidirectional vehicle communications in the 1990s with a focus on building systems that would enable vehicles to be operated automatically by following buried lines on the roadway. The cost, however, proved prohibitive.

Wireless technologies then were proposed to pass information between vehicles and to roadside access points. Dedicated short-range communication (DSRC), which establishes Wi-Fi data networks specifically for automotive use, enables any two DSRC-equipped vehicles to exchange data via ad-hoc networks that are created spontaneously between vehicles as the need arises. This information can include transmitting braking signals back over several vehicles, giving drivers early warning that they might soon have to brake.

DSRC spectrum falls in the 5.850-5.925 GHz band that the FCC allocated to enhance the safety and productivity of the transportation system. The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) standardization committee E17.51 is developing a standard. DSRC is designed to complement cellular communications by providing very high data transfer rates in circumstances where minimizing latency in the communication link and isolating relatively small communication zones are important. DaimlerChrysler last year was the first to publicly demonstrate broadband car-to-car communication between a Mercedes-Benz E-Class vehicle and a Dodge Durango.

Last month saw the official dedication of the Connected Vehicle Proving Center (CVPC) in Ann Arbor, Mich. Designed to support the intelligent transportation and vehicle communications global development efforts of the Center for Automotive Research and the Connected Vehicle Trade Association (CVTA), this lab is expected to play a key role in validating future trends for wireless vehicle connectivity. The CVPC was launched with a $3 million grant from Michigan's 21st Century Jobs Fund, a $2 billion, 10-year initiative administered by the Michigan Economic Development Corp.

“Our long-term goal is to virtually link wireless-enabled roads, proving grounds and test tracks, independent bench test laboratories and traffic management centers with a centralized data processing, evaluation and training center through the CVPC,” said Scott McCormick, president of CVTA. Indeed, ABI's Alexander said the CVPC is the first real test of DSRC technology.

DSRC has a range of possibilities. The DOT has been pushing the technology not only to curb road fatalities but to monitor traffic flow and road conditions. It envisions a system that could detect, through a car's brake system, where the slippery patches on the road are located, use velocity to determine where pot holes are located, or create a uniform toll-collection method.

“If we look at what has happened in other parts of the world, the primary driver for this type of technology is on congestion management, control and notification, and it's politically the right thing to do,” said Alex Brisbourne, president and chief operating officer of Kore Telematics.

Of course, much work needs to be done to get from the test phase to actual deployment. Everyone in the value chain has to cooperate. Automobile manufacturers have to agree to add the same technology — and need a financial interest to justify doing so. Local governments are tasked with paying for, installing and maintaining the infrastructure that is going to manage the data.

Chris Purpura, senior vice president of marketing for Aeris Communications, a telematics and wireless machine-to-machine operator, believes the DOT has the impetus to move DSRC and other technologies forward.

“DOT was embarrassed by the bridge collapse in Minneapolis,” said Purpura. “There is now real movement from the DOT to jump-start this capability and get it going.”

Purpura says car manufacturers have the incentive to embed this type of capability because the technology can be used to improve their own businesses. For instance, manufacturers can collect data on a car's wear and tear to build better cars or recommend maintenance to drivers.

Governments will have to bear the expense of rolling out the infrastructure, partner with commercial entities that could use the technology for commercial applications — such as mapping applications — or apply for grants.

“The trend I'm detecting is that this will ultimately be managed by a public/private partnership,” Alexander said. “It's going to take government money to get the initial installation done. … We won't see the whole country blanketed. It has to be installed and evolved.”

In the meantime, technologies exist that are filling the gaps. SpeedInfo works with the DOT at the local and state levels to measure the speed of vehicles on the road. Using self-contained, solar-powered Doppler radar speed sensors mounted on poles, road signs or overpasses, SpeedInfo is able to directly measure traffic flow in real time. The information is then transmitted via AT&T Mobility's GPRS wireless data network to a database.

“Governments understand that when you put money into traveler information services, the payback is something like 36 to one,” said Doug Finley, chief executive officer of SpeedInfo. “Drivers can get more information to avoid the busiest route. Governments can load-balance highways and take cars off the most congested areas.”

Moreover, SpeedInfo's solution helps meter lights and assists in incident detection. While the company was demonstrating the technology in Omaha, Neb., an accident occurred, and SpeedInfo's technology was able to determine how fast the car was going at impact, dispatch emergency services quickly and notify drivers of the accident via 511 systems.

Given the reality of limited budgets and vast stretches of roads that lack any data, governments require a high-quality but low-cost solution, Finley said. Rather than putting the cost burden on local governments, SpeedInfo pays for the installation upfront and maintains the network for a monthly fee. The company also sells data to government agencies, television and radio stations, and other commercial entities that repackage the information and provide value-added services such as traffic mapping.

INTELLIGENT TRANSPORTATION SYSTEMS TECHNOLOGIES

511

SpeedInfo has commenced 12 trials across the country and has five major deployments in places such as Nebraska, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

511 is the universal three-digit telephone number assigned by the FCC for travel and traffic information purposes. A coalition of transportation agencies and private companies is working toward nationwide deployment of 511 service, already available to nearly 100 million Americans (as of February 2006), across 28 states, major cities or regions.

Automated Crash-Notification Systems

Automated crash-notification systems transmit crash information such as collision force and impact angle to assist responders in determining what type of help to send and where to transport the injured.

Advanced Traffic-Management Systems

Advanced traffic-management systems employ detectors, cameras and communication systems to monitor traffic, optimize signal timing on major arterials and improve the flow of traffic.

Incident-Management Systems

Incident-management systems provide traffic operators with the tools to allow quick and efficient response to accidents, hazardous spills and other emergencies. Communication systems link data-collection points, transportation operations centers and decision-support software into an integrated network that can be operated efficiently and “intelligently.”

Intersection Collision-Avoidance Systems

Intersection collision-avoidance systems monitor a vehicle's speed and position relative to the intersection, along with the speed and position of other vehicles in the vicinity, advising the driver of appropriate actions to avoid a right-of-way violation or impending collision. Almost one-third of all crashes are intersection crashes.

Mayday Systems

Mayday systems automatically contact a call center when a driver presses a button or an airbag deploys.

Source: ITS America