The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has been reminding us that the primary reason for deploying autonomous, connected vehicles (AV/CV) and connected automated vehicles (CAV) technology is to increase public safety. While system capacity, efficiency, reduced fuel consumption and increased sustainability are all secondary benefits, the federal agencies regulating the technology are predominately concerned with public safety and loss of life.
And for good reason. According to the NHTSA, 90 percent of all reported crashes involve driver error. In 2015, there were 6.3 million auto crashes and 35,092 highway deaths in the U.S. Highway fatalities were the most common cause of death for individuals from 4 to 44 years of age, and the number of fatalities rose by 7 percent last year, according to the Federal Highway Administration. Economically, the U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that $90 billion is lost annually due to traffic congestion on our roadways.
CAV technology could reduce crashes by up to 94 percent. Vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) technology allows vehicles to stream relevant data related to traffic conditions, incidents, pedestrians, weather and safety from vehicle to vehicle. When perfected, this technology may actually allow vehicles to learn from each other as they are going through the routine of transporting people or goods. Vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) technology will allow similar data to be transmitted from traffic control signals, communication towers, weather stations, pedestrians and bicyclists, construction crews, and traffic control centers back to vehicles and vice versa.
The combined benefits of these two technologies will drastically improve driver safety. But, in order for this to become a reality, our roadways and signal systems need to become more intelligent.
While the auto industry and technology providers have paved the way for advancements in vehicle design, it is now time for the civil engineering, traffic engineering, ITS and infrastructure design professionals to become more proactively engaged by evolving the intelligence of our infrastructure. We know that AV technology is being extensively field tested and selectively deployed in Florida, Pennsylvania, California, Virginia, Nevada, Michigan, Massachusetts, and Georgia, to name a few. Eight separate vehicle manufacturers expect to have AV vehicles ready for use by 2020/2021.
The challenge associated with upgrading and increasing the intelligence of our public infrastructure is slightly different. Recently, the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI) participated in a $22 million partnership with the US DOT called the Connected Vehicle Safety Pilot Model Deployment Program. This was the single largest real-world case of connected vehicle technology involving 3,000 vehicles on public streets in Ann Arbor, Mich., for a one year period (2012- 2013). The data collected from this study will help FHWA, NHTSA and other state and municipal agencies, prepare for the more broad deployment of this technology.
As we fast forward into the future and look at what an intelligent infrastructure system mostly supported by wireless technology, GPS, satellite communication systems and streaming data and video might look like, here is an example of what we might experience:
A CAV travels efficiently along a managed lanes facility located within the interstate highway. The vehicle travels at the optimum speed and each of the vehicles in the managed lanes are optimally spaced 15 feet apart because they are communicating with each other. The vehicles know when a curve is ahead and adjust their suspension accordingly with relatively no impact to their passengers.
Along the adjacent local streets, cars are equally spaced and at an optimal distance apart. They adjust speed to facility design and conditions. They know there is a traffic signal ahead, and it sends a signal well in advance to inform the vehicles when the lights will be green or red.
Around the corner is a utility work crew. The satellite GPS system has recognized this and informs the vehicles to reduce speed and adjust their movement as they navigate through the work zone. At a subsequent intersection, as a pedestrian is crossing the street, the smart pedestrian signal is aware of his presence and also picks up a communication from his smart phone. This data along with the rate of his speed crossing the intersection, and that he is accompanying a small child, is conveyed to all approaching vehicles within a quarter mile radius. They adapt their speed accordingly.
In the distance is a fire truck headed to a pending emergency. The truck has the ability to override any traffic control devices and also sends a signal to any other emergency and non-emergency vehicles that know where the fire truck is as well as where the incident is, so private and commercial vehicles can alter their travel route accordingly and avoid delays.
The benefits of a connected intelligent infrastructure system are easy to understand. But they will not be developed by automobile manufacturers. The future of intelligent infrastructure will be planned, designed and implemented by engineering and public works professionals. So while the vehicle developers have their glory and make the front page of technology magazines, it is time for the engineering professionals to learn how to adapt our infrastructure and make it capable of communicating with automated vehicles and take advantage of the latest technology so that the full effect of this new technology will be realized.