Self-driving cars on I-70

The Colorado Department of Transportation seeks to be at the front curve of accommodating self-driving cars on I-70 and other corridors. 2007 photo/Allen Best

The Colorado Department of Transportation seeks to be at the front curve of accommodating self-driving cars on I-70 and other corridors. 2007 photo/Allen Best

Self-driving cars: how soon on I-70?

Road X seeks to lay foundation

by Allen Best

I-70 CORRIDOR, Colo.— On a Sunday afternoon, winter and summer, it can be a three-hour crawl from Silverthorne to Denver, just 68 miles away. With cars inching along at 5 mph, that’s plenty of time for complaining to your fellow passengers.

But will cars soon talk with one another?

That’s one end result of a new program launched by the Colorado Department of Transportation called Road X. It will begin incrementally, with C-DOT spending $10 million to equip more than 700 first-responder, ski shuttle, and commercial vehicles on I-70 with devices that use radio waves to transmit information on road conditions, traffic, and other problems.

Along with cellular and satellite communications systems, a communications infrastructure will be created to allow more two-way conversations between cars and infrastructure, as well as between cars. In other words, C-DOT wants to create the framework for operation of autonomous-driving vehicles.

It’s possible that I-70 could be one of the first corridors in the nation to embrace the emerging technology.

“I think in the next 5 to 7 years we’ll see a major effort to get that technology on the road,” says Peter Kozinski, director of the Road X program for C-DOT. “All the big manufacturers have the technology. The question is where is the best place to employ it, and that’s what Road X is all about. It’s getting our corridor ready.”

Kozinski believes that drivers will demand the technology, because it will free up their time. Instead of “keep your eyes on the road and your hands upon the wheel,” as Jim Morrison instructed in the 1970 hit song by the Doors, drivers can take a nap, watch a movie, or whatever else.

This doesn’t necessarily mean the end of congestion, says Kozinski. It does mean more productive use of time.

The slog on March afternoon at Idaho Springs before the widening of the tunnels to three lanes adn the addition of express lanes. 2008 photo/Allen Best

The slog on March afternoon at Idaho Springs before the widening of the tunnels to three lanes adn the addition of express lanes. 2008 photo/Allen Best

“What it does mean is that you have reliable time and your time in the vehicle is not knuckle-dragging driving. You can take a nap, watch a movie. You are not a slave to the car. The car is driving you on your behalf, and you get to use the time as you see fit,” he says.

Road X won’t engage directly in autonomous driving technology, but will instead soon start with putting into place improved communications to a central data center.

“We will be trying to push and pull information on all these of these communications mechanisms,” Kozinski tells Mountain Town News.

The project will be incremental, but with anticipation of a huge change in transportation technology perhaps unprecedented since cars rapidly replaced horses at the start of the 20th century.

See photos from New York’s 5th Avenue comparing an Easter morning in 1900 vs. that of 1913).

“While the project eventually will lay infrastructure that may assist car-to-car communications, my understanding is that this deployment (at least the first phase) won’t exactly provide for that,” says Clear Creek County Commissioner Tim Mauck. “It’s more like car-to-cloud-to car/user. Providing information to truck drivers alerting/guiding them to spots in the chain-up station would be an early goal, for example.”

This communication matrix will create the foundation for car-to-car communications as will be needed for autonomous-driving vehicles.

Colorado would not be the first. Already, a program began testing autonomous driving possibilities on highways in Michigan, because of the proximity of car manufacturers. There have been tests in Nevada and California, and other states, including Virginia, are moving forward briskly.

C-DOT intends to push the envelope as aggressively as anybody. “We will go aggressively at the technology,” says Amy Ford, spokeswoman for the agency.

Road X will also target congestion of I-25 between Fort Collins and Colorado Springs, but with some different strategies leading to automated vehicles. For example, ramps leading to I-25 are metered with what Ford calls “dumb” metering systems, letting X number of vehicles onto the highway in rush-hour periods. C-DOT begins to install what are called hyper-smart metering systems that can adjust the flow of traffic from the ramp depending upon traffic congestion. In Australia, this cutting-edge technology has reduced congestion by 40 percent without the need to add lanes.

Ford also points out that C-DOT is amassing great volumes of information about road surfaces, such a bridges, retaining walls, even when sunlight falls on any given piece of pavement on any given day of the year. That information can eventually be plugged into databases that communicate to self-driving cars.

This doesn’t mean that new highway lanes won’t be needed. But it could mean they are built differently, Ford says. With automated cars, only 10-foot lanes might be necessary, instead of 12-foot lanes.

Shailen Bhatt, executive director of C-DOT, told the Denver Post that his agency is examining a menu of options. He describes more express lanes, both over Floyd Hill west of Denver and from the Eisenhower Tunnel to Vail. And another bore through the tunnel is still on the table.

Margaret Bowes, program manager for the I-70 Coalition, reports excitement but also questions.

“I think it’s really exciting that Colorado is trying to be at the forefront of trying to use technology to increase mobility, especially on the I-70 west corridor,” she says.

But will it increase traffic speeds? “I am really curious to see how big an impact it can have on congestion. It can no doubt help, but we have such a high level of congestion on this corridor.”

The new technology could improve speeds by reducing accidents. Accidents cause 60 percent of congestion, and self-driving cars can mostly eliminate accidents.

But self-driving cars could also speed up traffic flows incrementally in this regard:

Consider the S curves just west of Idaho Springs. There’s really no need to slow down, if you’re not driving overly fast. Yet, many people do have an instinct to tap their brakes when they see a curve. Seeing the red lights, drivers behind slow down, and so the caterpillar of traffic slows – or stops.

Autonomous self-driving cars can be programmed to keep speeds reasonable but then avoid the knee-jerk brake-tapping, says Kozinski.

C-DOT personnel get visibly excited when they talk about the changes they expect to see. And they expect to see Colorado at the front edge of change – and I-70 at the front edge of Colorado.

This is from the Dec. 15 issue of Mountain Town News. Subscribe and see what you’re missing, because it’s not all here.






About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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