Letting cars and trucks on I-70 talk to each other below the ‘clouds’
by Allen Best
IDAHO SPRINGS, Colo. – By this coming winter, the Colorado Department of Transportation hopes to have up to 1,000 cars talking to one another on the I-70 corridor west of Denver.
The point of this conversation? To avoid accidents, maybe by up to 80 percent if the warnings can lead to automatic braking.
C-DOT is trying to be at the front trickle of new technology that may dramatically improve safety and also increase carrying capacity of existing highway infrastructure. The agency’s Road X programs on both I-70 and I-25 also anticipate the eventual arrival of self-driving cars that are already being tested in California and Nevada.
The I-70 corridor west from Denver may be the most challenging laboratory in that it has some of the most challenging weather, steepest grades (4,000 feet in 25 miles), and most congested traffic (on weekends) of any interstate highway in the nation.
“It can be a test for a lot of places,” says Amy Ford, C-DOT’s communications manager.
The first project is already getting underway. By next winter, C-DOT hopes to have smartphones in 1,000 passenger vehicles outfitted with applications that can transmit information about traffic and highway conditions. The information will be transmitted to a data cloud site and then bounced back to other vehicles in less than two seconds. “That’s the goal,” says Ford.
C-DOT’s partner in deploying this technology is a company called HERE, which is owned by a consortium of German automakers, including Audi, BMW, and Daimler. This is the first deployment in North America of the vehicle-to-infrastructure project over a cellular network. The concept has been previously deployed in Finland. HERE is also working with the Dutch government on a parallel program.
Next year, C-DOT plans to install dedicated short-range radio in public vehicles, including emergency service responders, trucks, and perhaps fleet groups, like Colorado Mountain Express. Again, the idea is to transmit information to a cloud, with almost immediate transmission back to the vehicles.
The future that C-DOT envisions is a communications web that allows vehicles to talk to one another and to the highway infrastructure.
But there’s another component to this communication network. C-DOT already has 15 friction sensors in the pavement of I-70 between Vail and Golden. These sensors relay information to C-DOT about the quality of road conditions, particularly whether ice is forming.
This year, the agency is implanting another 20 sensors in the same highway segment. These new sensors, says Ford, will be much, much smarter than the original sensing technology.
“We have them in the roads, but it’s not very smart. It’s just gotten smarter and smarter and smarter over time,” says Ford. The intent now is to relay that information to cars themselves and not just to warning signs.
The big question is how soon automated cars will be allowed in Colorado. The federal government and automakers have defined four basic levels of automation, beginning with what we have now to, at the very top, the technology being tested by Google and Tesla, in both Texas and California, with steering wheels computers doing all the driving.
C-DOT’s ambitions for the I-70 corridor fall in between, with road conditions, accidents, and so on being communicated to the cars and eventually leading to automatic braking.
“That’s the next evolution of the technology,” says Ford. “If we can make it work in the I-70 mountain corridor, it can work everywhere. We want to be on the front of these things.”
In metro Denver, I-25 will get attention with new technology designed to ease congestion in existing infrastructure. First being deployed is technology previously deployed in Brisbane and other busy Australian cities. The technology will adjust the number of
cars allowed to enter the traffic of I-25 from feeder roads between RidgeGate and University Boulevard.
In Australia, congestion was reduced 40 percent. “We don’t dream we will get that level of outcome, but we very bullish on the idea that is effective management and how we see the technology can improve traffic,” says Ford.
Yet more ideas are out there on the horizon. One idea involves linking truck convoys, such as FedX trucks, using truck-to-truck communication. The trucks could be inches from one another, taking up less highway space and also encountering less head wind, providing greater energy efficiency. In effect, you’ll see a truck train.
C-DOT, says Ford, aims to be the best, most progressive state transportation agency in the country. And other states, she says, are beginning to look to Colorado to see what it is doing.