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One State's Plans to Expand Connected Vehicle Technology

Improving safety when road conditions are bad is one way Utah officials believe connected vehicle technology could prove useful.

Improving safety when road conditions are bad is one way Utah officials believe connected vehicle technology could prove useful. Shutterstock

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More cars and trucks that can communicate with roadside sensors are expected to roll off assembly lines in the coming years.

Utah may spend up to $50 million over about five years as part of a new deal with Panasonic to expand the use of roadside sensor technology that will be able to exchange data in real time with compatible vehicles traveling on the state’s roads.

Details of the project are still being worked out. But an initial one-year phase now under contract is expected to cost about $8 million and will involve the company installing roughly 40 roadside sensors and equipping around 30 state-owned vehicles to communicate with them.

Data will flow to a central, cloud-based software platform that will monitor the information and automatically generate alerts that can be shared with vehicles, infrastructure like traffic signals and electronic signs, and state transportation staff.

Utah anticipates future phases could include about 220 sensors and up to 2,000 vehicles. Whether the state proceeds with these additional phases will depend on the project’s performance and funding availability.

If the project is developed in full, as planned, the state would invest about $50 million in it. But as it stands, all of that funding has not been approved.

Chris Armstrong, a vice president with Panasonic Smart Mobility, explained that the roadside technology is capable of communicating with compatible vehicles 10 times per second, gleaning information on variables like braking, acceleration, steering, and traction control.

“Cars today, with so much sensor technology, they really know a lot about what’s happening not only in the car but what’s happening outside the car,” he said.

Blaine Leonard, an engineer with Utah’s Department of Transportation who is helping lead the project, said a primary goal for the state is harnessing such data to improve road safety. 

“We're committed to these technologies,” he said. “We think this is the right direction to go.”

An example Leonard offered of how the system may one day work if it’s more widely adopted might look like this: Suppose vehicles equipped with the wireless technology are losing traction on a certain stretch of highway on a cold day. The roadside sensors would receive this information from the vehicles and funnel it to state authorities. The state could then send out an alert to drivers to watch out for icy roads. 

But rather than appearing only on overhead electronic signs along the highway, the alert could show up in a person’s car as they approached the place where the road was slick, offering specific information about the location of the ice and the time when it was last detected.

There are other possible uses as well. For instance, similar alerts could be issued as cars slow down and become jammed up as they approach the site of a highway crash. Leonard notes that secondary rear end collisions near crash sites are not uncommon.

The state is also considering whether there are ways to collect data to determine the location of potholes and other types of road damage.

Colorado and Panasonic are working on a project similar to the one getting underway in Utah. That program is centered on a 90-mile corridor along Interstate 70. It involves about 90 state vehicles equipped with technology to communicate with the roadside equipment, Armstrong said, including snowplows and highway maintenance trucks.

Utah, meanwhile, has been building out a program for about five years that now allows for wireless communication between traffic signals and some transit buses and snowplows.

The bus component was designed to allow buses running late to communicate with signals to get green lights, or shorter red lights, so they can get back on schedule. Leonard says the state has found this is working, improving on-time rates by about 6% at busy times.

These existing Utah initiatives incorporate nearly 130 roadside units and about 80 vehicles that use wireless technology known as dedicated short range communications, or DSRC.

“We need to scale this up in a bigger way,” Leonard said. 

That, he added, will involve developing a way to manage huge amounts of data that could one day be flowing from thousands or even millions of connected vehicles.

More new vehicles are expected to start rolling off assembly lines in the years ahead with connected vehicle technology. 

Ford Motor Co. has said all of its new models in the U.S. will be equipped with cellular “vehicle-to-everything” technology by 2022, enabling them to communicate with similarly equipped vehicles, traffic infrastructure and even pedestrians’ mobile phones.

The widespread adoption of technology like this is raising concerns in some quarters. Groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation have highlighted privacy and cybersecurity risks.

Utah will own the data from the Panasonic program and can use it as it sees fit, Armstrong said. The company will also have the right to use the data to develop computer applications.

The state is moving ahead with its connected vehicle initiatives even though the technology is relatively new and still evolving. “Let's find good technology that can bring us benefits," Leonard said. "Let’s evaluate it. If it looks solid, let’s go do it.”

“If some day we have to shift gears and do something different,” he added, “that’s okay, we’ve gotten benefits along the way.”

Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.

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