Improving Surface Transportation Systems with Wireless Technologies

Using technology to relieve congested roadways

As our nation’s economy recovers and grows, the demand to transport goods and people is also growing and our highways are becoming increasingly congested. Increased use of our roadways is occurring at a time where many facilities require expensive rehabilitation, repairs, and maintenance. This adds additional challenges for states and other roadway system operators who are being asked to find innovative ways to make our roads safer and more productive in an era of shrinking budgets and uncertain policies.

The public sector commitment to maintain a safe infrastructure and keep traffic flowing is a great one. And it comes with an equally great cost. According to the Federal Highway Administration, there are 4.07 million miles of road in the United States, and all of those millions of miles of road must be paved and maintained. In addition to keeping our roads and bridges in top shape, roadway operators must also seek to reduce traffic congestion while pursuing a higher standard of quality for everyday drivers navigating our aging and overcrowded roadways.

Roadway Sensors Provide Valuable Traffic Data to Transportation Planners

For the past 40 years, roadway system managers have deployed an extensive array of sensor systems implanted in and around roadways to gather information about traffic and traffic patterns. These sensors measure how fast vehicles are going, detect what kind of vehicles are passing by, and estimate the amount of damage sustained to roadway surfaces. These sensor systems are crucial to systems management, but they are costly to install, maintain, and operate.

The increasing costs of maintaining roads, including the expense of roadway sensors systems, are forcing our nation’s transportation leaders to seek alternate solutions based on both existing and emerging technologies. Public sector agencies at all levels (federal, state, and local) are actively working together to exploit opportunities utilizing new technologies to transform transportation systems management. One set of promising opportunities surrounds wireless mobile devices connecting with other mobile devices in vehicles and to the vehicles themselves. These platforms have the ability to generate data and messages that, in many cases, have the potential to replace many expensive roadside sensors that have been deployed on our roads over the last 40 years. And, they can potentially do it at a much lower cost while returning more sophisticated data about traffic speed and flow.

Exploring the Potential of Wireless Intelligent Transportation Technologies

Noblis’ scientists and engineers are assisting the federal government as they explore the potential of wireless intelligent transportation technologies. Noblis transportation experts helped design a broad research program that brings stakeholders in freight operations, transit, traveler information services, freeway operations, and signal control together to talk about the many issues surrounding wireless data collection. As a part of the research, Noblis is also gathering information about the kind of collective contributions that will mutually benefit all parties, especially in terms of the type of data transmitted and the cost of transmitting it.

This collection of research surrounding wirelessly connected vehicles and infrastructure is currently underway, and although less than 50 percent complete, the results are already helping transportation system managers determine which types of wirelessly collected messages are likely to work, and which messages and concepts will not work. The results are also helping to determine whether it is more advantageous to build applications directly into a vehicle or mobile device or to focus on applications running in centralized traffic management centers where  vehicle and mobile device messages can be rapidly assembled and interpreted to support improved system management.

Ultimately, Noblis expects the results of the study to improve the safety of our roadways by helping the government better manage the flow of traffic and helping alert drivers about upcoming traffic conditions and hazards. This will not only make travel faster and more predictable, but will also make it safer and "greener" at the same time. Giving drivers the ability to anticipate upcoming slowdowns and unsafe conditions will help prevent crashes and reduce emissions from vehicles that are stuck idling on roadways leading up to crash sites.

By partnering with government agencies, automakers, other commercial interests, Noblis’ surface transportation experts are helping to develop integrated systems and technologies that have the potential to transform surface transportation systems management.

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