Planners say 'smart roads' will unlock benefits from self-driving cars, curb accidents, but costs are high
States Wire Up Roads as Cars Get Smarter Planners say 'smart roads' will unlock benefits from self-driving cars, curb accidents, but costs are high
By PAUL PAGE Jan. 2, 2017 3:59 p.m. ET
FAIRFAX, Va.-On a crowded interstate outside Washington, D.C., large digital signs over four westbound lanes flashed messages lowering the speed limit by 10, then 20 miles an hour.
Drivers slowed just as a fast-moving thunderstorm unleashed sheets of rain that drenched the road and reduced visibility to a few dozen yards. There was no abrupt braking, no swerving and none of the fender-benders that can tie up traffic for miles.
The signs, installed last year, are a first step toward what highway planners say is a future in which self-driving cars will travel on technology-aided roads lined with fiber optics, cameras and connected signaling devices that will help vehicles move as quickly as possible-and more safely.
Transit planners say these so-called smart roads will unlock bigger benefits from self-driving cars, including fewer accidents, faster trips and fuel savings.
So far, the technology is being built into just a few miles of highway in a handful of states, even as smartcars hit the roads. Uber Technologies Inc.
is testing a small fleet in Pittsburgh and the company's Otto business in October delivered a load of Budweiser beer with a self-driving truck.
Silicon Valley trucking-software maker Peloton Technology Inc. wants to deploy autonomous truck convoys this year.
"This transition is happening a lot quicker than we anticipated," says Ronique Day, a government transportation analyst in Virginia, one of several states studying ways for roads and cars to communicate.
State transit authorities say they may make up some ground if the incoming administration of Donald Trump fulfills promises to increase infrastructure spending. With many states struggling to cover basic highway maintenance, planners say billions of federal dollars likely will be needed to wire the nation's more than 4 million miles of paved roads and 250,000 intersections.
"The budgets are not getting bigger and all this new technology is going to come at a cost," said Myra Blanco, director of the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute's Center for Policy and Outreach, which is researching how the next generation of roads and cars interact on a 2.2-mile test road in the southwestern Virginia town of Blacksburg.
Ohio last month said it would spend $15 million to install smart-road technology along 35 miles of Route 33, a state road from outside Columbus to the state's Transportation Research Center in East Liberty.
"The innovators will be the ones that work this out," says Bryan Thomas, a spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Car companies say their self-driving vehicles will be safer than automobiles driven by people and help reduce the nation's roughly 35,000 annual traffic fatalities.
Planners say smart roads can generate fuel savings by having cars drive at steady speeds, without stops and starts, and increase road capacity by enabling vehicles to travel closer together without risking traffic snarls or accidents.
The first step for the states, which oversee the vast majority of big roads, will be deciding how to communicate with cars as an array of auto makers and tech companies independently develop autonomous-driving technology. No common standard has been established for how a new generation of smartcars will receive information from smart roads-or how they will handle alerts once they get them.
"What we have is a chicken-and-egg problem," says Utah transportation systems program director Blaine Leonard, who is chairman of a national committee on connected cars and roads run under the American Association of State Highway and Transportation. "Cars right now don't have anything on them to talk to. Most of the installations [on roads] are for research purposes."
Utah is undertaking a test of the technology on a stretch of Salt Lake City's Redwood Road, a major north-south commuter route. Sensors on traffic lights connect to public buses and can adjust red and green signals to help buses stay on schedule.
Highway researchers say their biggest hurdle is ensuring they have technology that can work.
Road connections to cars have mostly used dedicated short-range communications, or DSRC, a wireless link commonly used in transportation systems to manage stoplights and tolling. But researchers say the industry may settle on cellular-data systems used for smartphones or Wi-Fi if the technology can handle information reliably and rapidly.
"Today's biggest expense is not hardware but software," says Mr. Leonard.
"There's no Apple Store for this technology."
Virginia has strapped one-foot-square DSRC devices on light poles and bridges on various roads, including Interstate 66 outside Washington, D.C.
The gadgets watch the highway and allow workers at a central-control site to change recommended speeds lane-by-lane depending on traffic and communicate that to drivers with the signs mounted over the highway. They also send messages to state government road-maintenance vehicles about traffic flows and road conditions.
Those so-called pings, and emergency messages that may be communicated on electronic boards on many highways, would arrive through a smartphone-like app that displays alerts on drivers' dashboards, says Dean Gustafson, operations division administrator at the Virginia Department of Transportation.
In a connected future, says Mr. Gustafson, the sensors along I-66 that now monitor traffic flows may get data signals from each car and see that wheels are losing touch with the road as a rainstorm builds. Instead of changing speed limits, the road devices could alert cars miles away to slow down and even give them new routes to their destinations.