Driving toward connectedness

May 16, 2016

Connected cars + smart infrastructure = a safer, more accessible future

Connected vehicles—those that “talk” to each other and share data about the environment they travel through—have arrived.

Paired with advancements in autonomous vehicle technology and smart infrastructure, we are gearing up for a dramatic change in how we navigate cities and by extension, our lives.

The U.S. DOT has made connectivity a priority. In fact, the agency is shifting its focus from helping people survive crashes to helping people avoid crashes altogether through the use of connected vehicles, and potentially autonomous vehicles, in an environment with interactive infrastructure. A February 2014 decision by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) began rule-making to require light vehicles to be able to make use of wireless communications for safety applications—and we expect to soon see a similar edict for heavy vehicles. A recent U.S. DOT report states that in 2009, there were 5.5 million car crashes resulting in 34,000 fatalities. The report asserts that connectivity could address 83% of light-vehicle crashes and 72% of heavy-truck crashes annually. The faster we can deploy an estimated 250 million connected vehicles, expected to be on the road by 2020, the more lives we can save.

A Honda test vehicle at the GoMentum Station campus in Contra Costa County.

Connected vs. autonomous

Connected and autonomous vehicles are the two primary technologies emerging around intelligent transportation. Both will have profound impacts on the future of mobility and the elements of transportation infrastructure.

An autonomous vehicle (AV), also known as a driverless car, driver-free car, self-driving car, or “robot” car, is capable of fulfilling all of the transportation capabilities of a traditional car. In sum, it is the embodiment of “hands-off-wheel, feet-off-pedal” technology. AVs are adept at “sensing” the environment and navigating without human input. From both a technology and implementation standpoint we are at a pivotal point of convergence with technological development for autonomous vehicles. Currently, AVs exist mainly as prototypes and demonstration programs; however, elements of the technology—such as the ability for cars to park themselves—are already beginning to appear in consumer vehicles.

Connected vehicles (CV), by contrast, are already prevalent on roadways across the country. While CVs still depend on human drivers to maneuver the vehicle, they use communication technology to make driving safer and cleaner. CV technology can include communications from vehicles to vehicles (V2V), vehicles to infrastructure (V2I) and vehicles to devices (V2X). The CV program is a major initiative of the U.S. DOT and is intended to improve safety by reducing collisions through wireless communications amongst vehicles, infrastructure and eventually consumer devices.

From a transportation perspective, we are seeing cars with greater and greater capabilities as a result of their connectivity: They let you know when you’re too close to the car in front of you and need to slow down, they’ll keep you from running over an object (or person) that is behind your car but not visible to the driver, and will offer alternate route information based on real-time traffic and weather data.

AVs, by definition, come equipped with the technology needed for their operations, embedded directly in the car. AVs sense their surroundings via radar, lidar (image sensing), GPS and computer vision. Advanced Control Systems (ACS) interpret sensory information to identify appropriate navigation paths, as well as obstacles and relevant signage. Some AVs update their maps based on sensory input, allowing the vehicles to keep track of their position even when conditions change or when they enter uncharted environments. While these technologies used to be bulky—think of the Google car with its roof-mounted cameras—they are now commonly embedded in the bumpers of new cars to power back-up alerts and other driver notifications.

That said, there are still elements of the transportation infrastructure that can be improved to make roads friendlier for AVs. Clear striping is a key factor in AVs operating safely. Just as it is difficult for people to navigate roads with poorly defined lanes, it is difficult for an AV’s sensors to navigate without clear, bright striping.

While self-driving cars may capture the imagination of the public, it is the use of wireless technology and CVs that is currently having the most transformative effect on roadways. CVs use dedicated wireless channels to send safety messages and information via dedicated short-range communications (DSRC). Data transmitted by CVs can communicate a vehicle’s speed, location and surrounding weather conditions, sending up to 10 communications per second to vehicles and receptive infrastructure elements around it. Connectivity gives these cars a better situational awareness of the surrounding conditions. AVs and CVs are not mutually exclusive. In fact, combining the two technologies is what will, sooner rather than later, redefine mobility for a new era.

An aerial view of part of the GoMentum Station.

Reshaping cities through technology

American cities have always emerged near transportation hubs: The places where people and goods could most easily come and go. First, we saw development around ports, then railroads, and then the interstate. Transportation will play an equally important role in shaping the cities of the future. This next iteration of infrastructure will communicate with vehicles and the vehicles will communicate back.

Already, this new connectivity is being applied in myriad ways. Traffic signals now can be embedded with a DSRC chip that allows cars to communicate with them, and allows signals to “talk” back to traffic. It may not be long before the single vehicle waiting for the red light to change at an otherwise empty intersection becomes a thing of the past. Using DSRC, the signal will know the CV is the only car waiting and will respond accordingly. DSRC signals also will have the ability to sense if a CV is not going to stop in time for a red light and will stay red for cross-traffic until the intersection is clear, greatly improving safety for other nearby drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians.

Other applications for this technology abound. In San Francisco, connected buses can now “hold” a green light to get through an intersection and travel their route more efficiently. Highways are using real-time traffic data to control metering lights, and drivers are getting accurate information about backups from their navigation systems, allowing them to select a better route. And in Contra Costa County, the city of Walnut Creek has installed test DSRC units and acquired the FCC license to operate them. One potential future application of the technology Walnut Creek is deploying is giving emergency vehicles priority. Imagine, with this technology, the traffic signal system could clear the path for an ambulance by initiating signal-timing changes ahead of the emergency vehicle, shaving potentially life-saving minutes off its trip.

Perhaps more interesting is considering how this technology will reshape cities in the future. It’s a question being explored by the Contra Costa Transportation Authority (CCTA), through GoMentum Station.

GoMentum Station is a 5,000-acre former naval weapons station, featuring 20 miles of paved roadway; two 1,400-ft tunnels; curbs and gutters; sidewalks; railroad crossings; potholes; and a mini-city. It is the largest secure AV/CV test facility in the U.S. and is fast becoming the center of CV and AV research. CCTA firmly believes in looking beyond transportation solutions that attempt to build our way out of congestion. Instead, the agency is evaluating and developing long-range plans to incorporate current and future technology applications. CCTA’s vision for the future centers on the use of emerging technologies and public-private partnerships to meet current and future transportation demands and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions in Contra Costa County.

Imagine a community that overlays a subscription-based autonomous transportation service on a connected city. A steady stream of detailed information about travel patterns, traffic accidents and more is collected in real time by this digital city. That information leads to more informed budget priorities and planning regarding, for example, what road needs to be repaired first or what culvert needs to be cleaned. If data is transmitted that six cars on Main Street have received a sudden jolt to their shock absorbers at the same spot, someone from the public works department could be dispatched to fill a pothole before it grows larger or causes an accident.

The implementation of CVs/AVs may first emerge as niche markets for those who can’t drive. For example, my 81-year-old mother no longer drives but still wants to visit with her granddaughter. A subscription-based AV service could provide her with an affordable means of mobility. It would solve the problem of getting people from their homes to public transportation, and then from that last bus or BART stop to their destination, addressing the first-and-last-mile challenge of public transportation. It is worth noting that this “niche market” is a growing one as the number of seniors in the U.S. increases.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, we see the potential of such a vehicle fleet to allow for the extension of existing BART (commuter train) lines to suburban areas, without requiring cities to also build massive and expensive parking structures. The use of electric cars for these subscription services has the potential to drastically reduce the levels of greenhouse-gas emissions. These are just a few of the ways that these key technologies are ushering in a safer, greener and more accessible future of mobility.

View within a tunnel at GoMentum Station.

The future may arrive sooner than you think

As of 2015, five U.S. states have passed laws permitting autonomous cars: Nevada, Florida, California, Michigan and North Dakota. Meanwhile, Alabama, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland, North Carolina, New Jersey, New York, Tennessee, Utah and Washington are among the states currently seeking approval from legislators to permit AVs on the roadway. In Europe, cities in Belgium, France, Italy and the United Kingdom are planning to operate transport systems for driverless cars, while Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and Spain are testing AV cars in live traffic.

At present, the CCTA is partnering with a wide array of companies, organizations and cities to establish GoMentum Station as a premier venue for transportation technology research, with the aim of bringing it to market as soon as possible. Connected and autonomous vehicle development will have a transformative and positive effect on our transportation systems, our cities and our lives. The future is, as ever, inevitable—but it is also, in this sense, bright.

About The Author: Iwasaki is executive director of the Contra Costa (California) Transportation Authority.

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