Imagine unfolding a map of the future of highway transportation just like you might unfold a printed state highway map today, small section-by-section, until you finally have the entire future spread out before you, showing every feature in eye-straining detail. Well right this minute, there are teams of people trying to do just that, and what is emerging has the potential to utterly transform highways and the driving experience.

The Dept. of Transportation is taking the lead on a number of initiatives currently under way that involve vehicle manufacturers, technology and communications providers, state and county highway departments and others working in cross-functional groups to create a new ground transportation reality. The project names alone give a glimpse of the ambitious scope of the work, including the Cooperative Intersection Collision Avoidance System (CICAS), Clarus - the National Surface Transportation Weather Observing and Forecasting System, and the Vehicle Infrastructure Integration (VII) initiative, which is a critical enabling architecture for the other projects.

VII: Communication road-to-vehicle/vehicle-to-vehicle

According to DOT, almost half of the more than 40,000 deaths that occur annually on America's highways are caused by road departure and intersection-related accidents. The thinking behind the VII initiative is that an active safety system, which uses advanced technologies to enable communication between vehicles and between vehicles and the roadside, could reduce the incidence of these events, saving lives and providing other transportation services in the process.

Where do you begin such a huge undertaking? For starters, a consortium of manufacturers, several State Departments of Transportation and the DOT was established to determine the feasibility of such a system and to establish an implementation strategy that could eventually result in communication devices in all vehicles and along all major U.S. public roadways. One site where research and development has already hit the road is in Michigan.

Since summer, the Road Commission for Oakland County, MI (RCOC), the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) and Illinois-based Motorola (www.motorola.com) have been working together to test a communications system that would enable the automatic and ubiquitous communication upon which the success of the VII vision depends.

The Michigan test involves the installation of transmission equipment on RCOC traffic signal poles in the area around RCOC's Traffic Operations Center in Waterford Township, as well as in several test vehicles. According to RCOC, it is the first-ever use of Motorola's “MOTODRIVE” wireless network architecture operating over the 5.9 GHz radio frequency.

“Two or three years ago, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) allocated the 5.9 GHz radio frequency for connecting vehicles to the highway infrastructure and to each other,” says RCOC spokesperson Craig Bryson. “It was a visionary move really, but until now the technology has not been available to take full advantage of it.”

MOTODRIVE leverages Motorola's Mesh Enabled Architecture networks and assembles other components and technologies to create a mesh network designed to quickly, securely and reliably send large amounts of data wirelessly from transmitter devices mounted alongside the roadway. The network can even receive and send data from vehicles in the area that are equipped with the necessary onboard technology. The whole process is referred to as “Dedicated Short-Range Communications” (DSRC) or WAVE (“Wireless Access in Vehicular Environments”).

“Since July, we have been doing a number of tests to get a sense for how the 5.9 GHz radio frequency functions in the real world,” offers Scott Propp, director connective vehicle platforms for Motorola. “It is a relatively short distance, line-of-sight communication technology, but it is fairly robust and creates a good, solid radio frequency connection. The system worked amazingly well in the first MDOT test.

“We learned a lot about its specific characteristics in the VII environment,” Propp adds. “For instance, we discovered that pine trees are almost a perfect signal absorber, especially if it rains, because of the length of their needles. How else would you discover something like that?

“Now we are looking at intersections as communication islands. As vehicles pass by intersection-mounted equipment, the system can automatically query onboard devices for any relevant information they have to share,” he continues. “Did vehicles have to swerve at a particular point in the road? Did anti-lock brake systems engage or the wipers come on? This kind of aggregated data can tell drivers, highway maintenance crews, law enforcement and others about potential safety hazards.”

The Michigan research team is currently preparing for another, larger-scale proof-of-concept test planned for next summer. It calls for the installation of 60 roadside devices. “At the proof-of-concept phase, it all comes together in the field, the in-vehicle devices and the roadside devices,” says Gary Piotrowicz, signal systems engineer for RCOC. “It is such a big program right now with so many little pieces. For example, the radios that will be used are still being worked on; all the required communications standards and protocols have not been issued yet, and all the management and integration software still has to be completed.

“There are also many decisions yet to be made,” Piotrowicz adds. “For example, how shall we handle the human-to-machine interface? In other words, how should drivers be alerted when there's a problem? On a heads-up display? With an audio alarm? Or maybe with vibrations in the driver's seat that mimic a rumble strip?”

CICAS: SAFER INTERSECTIONS

According to Piotrowicz, two of the 60 roadside devices in the 2007 proof-of-concept test will also be CICAS (Cooperative Intersection Collision Avoidance System)-equipped. “We are also directly involved with the CICAS project,” he says. “The goal of CICAS is to use vehicle-based and infrastructure-based technologies to warn drivers approaching an intersection about potential problems, such as violations of traffic control devices or pedestrians or cyclists in the intersection. We want to help motorists safely maneuver through intersections.”

Ford Motor Co. (www.ford.com), an active participant in VII, CICAS and other advanced transportation initiatives, describes how CICAS would work: As a vehicle approaches a traffic light, it would receive a message from the system with the traffic signal phase (red, yellow or green) and the time remaining before the signal changes. The vehicle would use this information, along with vehicle speed and position data, to decide if a warning of some type or a more active countermeasure, like deploying an automatic brake assist, is appropriate.

Clarus: Whatever the weather

People are not the only source of potential safety problems on the highway, of course. Even if every single driver behaved flawlessly and every single vehicle was in perfect repair, there would still be weather-related problems with which to contend, hence the Clarus initiative.

According to the Federal Highway Administration, there were over 1.4-million weather-related crashes in 2001 and more than 6,900 deaths. Clarus (Latin for “clear”) is “an initiative to develop and demonstrate an integrated surface transportation weather observing, forecasting and data management system.” It would also establish a partnership to create a Nationwide Surface Transportation Weather Observing and Forecasting System.

Transportation managers and users would be the major beneficiaries of Clarus. The system is intended to provide more timely, accurate and relevant road- and weather-condition information by using technologies such as vehicle-based sensors and roadside video cameras in conjunction with the VII communication architecture. The initiative also calls for tighter coordination among various federal agencies, including FHWA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (See publication number FHWA-HOP-04-037 at www.fhwa.dot.gov.) If the project proceeds as planned, field design and model deployment would begin in mid-2008.

“Generally speaking, the granularity of the information that DOT has now is still fairly crude and fairly widely spaced,” notes Scott Propp. “Getting more communications into the system would help. A wireless network offers a very inexpensive way to do that. The flip side of this is how do you get that information back into the vehicle? A mesh network tool, such as we are testing in the VII project, would enable you to collect smaller pockets of localized, timely and relevant information and then communicate it to those who need it.”

WHAT TO DO FIRST?

“All of these technology applications require an enormous amount of cooperation among a lot of entities,” observes Propp, “and everybody has a different perspective on what is the most important. There is such a rich gradient of applications, if you will. Nearly 200 private transportation-related applications have already been identified. One of the tricky problems is coming up with the short list, determining what to do first.”

One strategy for prioritizing applications has been to develop a list of what are called “Day One” applications, things that can deliver immediate safety benefits even if the number of system users is still small. “We have identified about 20 Day One applications that can make a safety improvement impact right away,” says Gary Piotrowicz. “They include things like warning drivers who are approaching a curve too fast to slow down and improving incident response times.”

As the interactive highway system is implemented, other applications are expected to follow, such as using data about hard braking or shock loads on front axles to help highway crews identify dangerous potholes that have to be filled, or using information about ambient temperature and windshield wipers coming on to identify icy roads that should be sanded. Traffic speed and vehicle following distance data could also be used to help manage traffic congestion by retiming signal lights, deploying active cruise control systems or making use of reversible traffic lanes.

The list of possibilities is almost endless, notes Piotrowicz. “In the future, we might not need any real signs along the road, for instance, signs that break and fade and are hard to read in bad weather,” he says. “Instead, all traffic signs would be virtual and simply displayed to you as you go.”

OF CHICKENS AND EGGS

For now, research and development continues while stakeholders try to identify the sweet spot where there are enough users and enough roadside devices to enable the system to work as intended. “Right now, it is a chicken-and-egg sort of thing,” says Piotrowicz. “Vehicle makers don't want to install communication devices in cars and trucks if the intersections aren't equipped to provide enough information to make them useful to drivers. On the other hand, there is no sense installing an elaborate roadside communication infrastructure if vehicles aren't equipped to take advantage of it. For example, in order for a signal timing system to work well, it requires a lot of equipped vehicles passing by, not just one every now and then.”

“My own view is that we are on the front edge of deploying a truly integrated ground transportation technology,” offers Propp. “I think we will go through a period of complexity and then evolve to where there is a very simple, common user interface. I have a poster on my wall showing the development of historical communications systems, such as voice. Today nobody thinks very much about how those systems evolved, what it took to get where they are today. The development of integrated transportation technology will be the same.”

On board

Nick Cappa, manager of advanced technology communications for DaimlerChrysler, is a man who loves his job. Cappa spends his days working on new onboard communications technologies for vehicles and says it an exhilarating time to be in his field. “I really enjoy my job,” he offers. “It is such an exciting time to be in the automotive industry. We are doing things now that seem like Star Wars.”

DaimlerChrysler is a member of the consortium working on DOT's Vehicle Infrastructure Integration (VII) initiative to enable vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-roadway communication over a dedicated short-range radio link dubbed DSRC (Dedicated Short Range Communication). “We are involved in VII because we see it as a next step for increased safety and mobility,” says Cappa. “There are now three different test locations in the U.S. — in Michigan, California and Florida.”

The potential applications for VII are what really inspire Cappa. “Suppose you are driving through a heavy fog bank,” he says, “and you get a message that a vehicle ahead of you, which you can't even see yet, has deployed an airbag. DSRC technology could give you time to respond safely.

“Another application is the mobile Construction Zone Warning,” Cappa says. “Workers at a construction site could put up an antenna that would send out a programmed message to vehicles approaching, such as ‘left lane closed ahead for construction.’ Vehicles that receive the message could automatically relay it to vehicles behind them.

“The technology could also be used when vehicles are on an unavoidable collision course,” he says. “The vehicles could instantly send information back and forth about factors such as vehicle weight, angle of approach, and closing speed that would be automatically used by each vehicle to deploy airbags in the best possible way to save lives.”

As beneficial as this new technology could be, one issue that invariably comes up is individual privacy. “It is very important for your readers to know that all this communication takes place anonymously,” notes Cappa. “It is absolutely not for doing things like monitoring the speed of individual drivers and remotely issuing tickets, for instance. Right from the beginning, vehicle manufacturers in the VII consortium have been adamant about communication privacy and anonymity as a condition of participation.”

Although automakers have been taking the lead in the VII initiative, the technology has applications across the entire vehicle population, including commercial trucks, according to Cappa. “This is like hybrid technology,” he observes. “Over time, it will migrate across the entire vehicle line.”