There’s no one route to the future, yet there already are on ramps open to it.

There’s no one route to the future, yet there already are on ramps open to it.

If you were asked to describe a smart highway, you might say it swiftly collects tolls. You might say it speeds the flow of goods. You might say it advances safety. You might even say it glows. And you might say, how on Earth do I merge onto this ribbon of wonder?

All that’s promised by myriad visions of the smart highway is nowhere near here yet, but some smart features already exist in some places. The technology is also being incorporated into the planning of major urban and suburban transportation-infrastructure projects.

Unlike the smart trucks and cars that are grabbing headlines, the smart highway seems to be slowly sneaking up on us. But that will change. As more highway users come to understand what intelligent roadways can offer trucking and society at large, more pressure will be directed at local, state, and federal government to speed their development by taking out regulatory speedbumps and spurring public and private investment.

To compare what’s here and now to what’s likely around the corner and what might be coming along somewhere down the road, it helps to start with a working definition of just what a smart highway is. Let’s peg it as a road with one or more intelligent and/or interactive technological features bolted onto it or built into its design.

Following that line of thinking, we can see that existing roads with overhead gantries to make toll collection faster and safer or weigh-station bypass systems to benefit truckers as highways boasting smart features.

Where From Here

Where the smart highway goes from here appears limited only by the imagination. Transportation engineers might argue that mundane but critical technical limits like bandwidths and network speeds may play a role in what smart features get rolled out first and where. But infrastructure funding, or the lack thereof, will no doubt be the greatest limiting factor to building out the smart highway.

Lars Stenqvist, executive vice president of Volvo Group Trucks Technology and chief technology officer of Volvo Group, has been doing a lot of thinking about where technology and trucking are headed. An industrial engineer by training, he freely admits, “I don’t know what the future will look like, but I have a clear view of where it’s headed.”

During a recent media briefing, he explained that smart trucks and “smart infrastructure” will work best hand-in-glove. Stenqvist said these three technologies have the greatest potential to change trucking: data connectivity, electric power, and autonomous driving.

He pointed out that even though each of these is being developed independently to one degree or another, their full impact will be felt when the three converge to benefit trucking and society by increasing highway safety, reducing congestion, and enhancing the quality of life.

In La La Land

California’s I-80 Smart Corridor project aims to boost safety and speed traffic flow by deploying various interactive smart features, including overhead signs that are dark until a lane-blocking incident occurs. Then, colored arrows, X’s and advisory speeds are shown.

California’s I-80 Smart Corridor project aims to boost safety and speed traffic flow by deploying various interactive smart features, including overhead signs that are dark until a lane-blocking incident occurs. Then, colored arrows, X’s and advisory speeds are shown.

Various forms of smart roads already exist, including one that’s been quietly going about its business for over 30 years in the City of Los Angeles.

One could say that in La La Land, the streets may be paved with dreams, but in reality they are studded with sensors – 25,248 to be exact, according to a CASE (Connected, Autonomous, Shared, Electric) project presentation by Daimler AG.

The 7.5 million vehicles running around America’s second largest city are kept moving smoothly and safely in large measure thanks to Los Angeles’ state-of-the-art Automated Traffic Surveillance and Control System.

ATCS was launched for the 1984 Summer Olympics and has grown to become the most advanced traffic control system in the U.S., fueled by a massive number of data sources. On top of all those sensors that generate second-by-second input, there are more than 500 cameras trained on critical intersections.

Data is relayed by the sensors, embedded in surface streets and freeway lanes, to the system’s control center. When the sensors determine traffic has slowed down, alerts are sent. System operators then reference cameras trained on the affected intersections to determine the cause of any tie-up and then take corrective actions, such as changing cycle times for traffic signals.

A newer initiative in the Golden State is the I-80 SMART Corridor Project in the Bay Area. It consist of a network of integrated electronic signs, ramp meters, and other state-of-the-art elements placed on roadways between the Carquinez Bridge in Contra Costa County and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge to help improve safety and reduce congestion.

The project aims to provide real-time traffic information via variable speed signs and blocked-lane signs, as well as other improvements, including real-time ramp metering on 44 on-ramps to reduce merging conflicts and manage traffic volumes on I-80.

Just as every full-blown smart highway will be built of component technologies, existing roadways may be fitted with various stand-alone smart features. For example, an in-cab safety speed advisory notification system for truck drivers is being piloted on the Pennsylvania Turnpike by Drivewyze as an add-on service to its PreClear weigh-station bypass application.

Truck drivers signed up for the Drivewyze service get notifications in their cabs when approaching any of 26 curves and ramps on the Pennsylvania Turnpike where the advisory speed is less than the posted speed. 

Doug Johnson, director of marketing, calls the Drivewyze platform “the largest vehicle-to-infrastructure safety network in the world. It connects software in trucks to infrastructure at the roadside as well as to public and private infrastructure dispersed elsewhere.”

He notes that the company is looking at developing other V2I solutions, such as an e-inspection system. “Our objective is to build a service that provides carriers with a partial CSA credit, for volunteering to provide hours of service, driver, and carrier safety data in advance of a weigh station,” says Johnson. “This would be more than a bypass service, and we are in the process of trialing this now in a number of jurisdictions.”

Alphabet Soup

The two communication technologies that largely underpin the capabilities of smart highways and the smart cars and trucks that roll over them are vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I).

V2V refers to on-board communication devices that transmit and receive messages about speed, heading, brake status, etc. With that technology, autonomous vehicles can communicate V2I directly with compatible infrastructure and V2V with other vehicles fitted with transmitters. V2I can be viewed as shorthand for technology that enables vehicles to use GPS and cellular/satellite links to communicate with roadside structures, such as toll gantries and weigh stations, or even all the way back to a fleet’s headquarters or a repair shop.

“Smart highways embed smart technology on key stretches of highway in order to cut congestion, improve efficiency and reduce the risk of accidents,” explains Jon Morrison, president of Wabco Americas, which counts connected-vehicle products among its offerings. He notes that southeast Michigan, for instance, has more than 100 miles of such roads. He says V2I technology is a key building block.

“For example,” says Morrison, “one stretch of I-75 in Metro Detroit is equipped with high-tech roadside bar codes that ‘communicate’ with vehicles equipped with V2I technology to alert them when there is construction or lanes closed ahead. Similarly, there is a road that communicates with properly equipped vehicles when the traffic signals ahead are about to turn red. These technologies use V2I communication and vehicle GPS receivers to monitor traffic issues.”

There are also research highways in the works, including one that doubles as a real-world road. A year ago, Ohio announced that it will invest $15 million to install state-of-the-art infrastructure for testing autonomous and connected vehicle technologies along a designated “Smart Mobility Corridor.”

The corridor, a 35-mile stretch of four-lane, limited-access highway between Dublin and East Liberty, will be equipped with high-capacity fiber optic cable to instantaneously link researchers and traffic monitors with data from embedded and wireless sensors along the roadway. 

These links will enable testing smart transportation technologies on a highway that carries up to 50,000 vehicles per day through rural and urban settings in a full range of weather conditions. Ohio DOT notes that, more immediately, the data gathered will also provide more frequent and accurate traffic counts, weather and surface condition monitoring, and incident management improvements.

Fred Andersky, director, customer solutions and marketing - controls for Ohio-based advanced safety solution supplier Bendix, says that among the first applications for the Buckeye State’s research road will be testing “portable” smart-highway solutions, like “short-range communications used to send out alerts there is a work zone in place or congestion ahead.”

Further down the road, he expects testing to expand into “real infrastructure, such as lane-marking transmitters that are powered by solar energy tapped from reflective side-by-side lane markings.” Andersky says such a setup would be used to center vehicles in their lanes. “And it would work on a clear day – and in rain or snow.

Here’s a depiction of one scenario for the rollout of autonomous vehicles on smart highways in the metro New York City area. According to the Regional Plan Association, getting really smart with vehicles and roads will require “making many assumptions," some of which will likely not play out as anticipated.

Here’s a depiction of one scenario for the rollout of autonomous vehicles on smart highways in the metro New York City area. According to the Regional Plan Association, getting really smart with vehicles and roads will require “making many assumptions," some of which will likely not play out as anticipated.

Not So Fast...

As for when we might all start gliding over highways that were designed to be smart from the ground up, consider some takeaways from a report released last month by the nonprofit Regional Plan Association.

The RPA paper focuses on improving the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut metropolitan area with the goal of making autonomous vehicles an everyday reality in the densely populated tri-state region that’s centered on New York City.

Along with legal and privacy issues that could delay adoption of autonomous cars, trucks, and buses, RPA contends that before self-driving vehicles can take to the streets in any sizable number, it must be recognized that there’s “no one-size-fits-all solution for communities to address AVs.”

RPA argues that “physical planning strategies and government regulations will need to differ by geography and time of day.” What’s more, suburban issues, including managing highway traffic, transitioning large areas devoted to surface parking, and adapting land use policies, will have to be addressed. And in urban areas, it will be a priority to regulate street space and address impacts on public transportation as well.

On the other hand, the regional planning group points out that already “dozens of other groups and governments around the country and the globe are examining these issues and trying to better understand how to respond to this new technology.”

The reason for all the studying to get smart highways built is manifold: To improve safety, to increase productivity and reduce stress in daily life, and to improve mobility for unlicensed drivers, including seniors and the disabled. And to make goods cheaper: “Costs associated with moving goods (and their price to customers) could be substantially reduced if trucks were automated and if an alternate solution was devised (self-service and/or automation) to unload the vehicle,” notes RPA.

Wabco’s Morrison sees the largest challenge with smart highways being the investment in the infrastructure. “Experts estimate that in the U.S. alone it costs hundreds of billions of dollars to equip the country’s 4 million miles of paved roads, in addition to the intersections, with [V2I] technology.”

He notes that another hurdle to overcome is what to do with all the data that will be generated by and along smart highways.

“It is likely that certain agencies will want to collect that data,” says Morrison. “Transportation planners may want to utilize the data collected on smart highways for use in designing more efficient roadways. Automakers may want access to the data when designing vehicles. The media may want to use it to monitor flow for their traffic reports. Exactly who will have access to the data gathered by the technology and how it is used is certainly something that will have to be addressed by the industry and related stakeholders.”

Bendix’s Andersky says for the full promise of smart highways and vehicles to be realized, “there will have to be a coordinated effort between technology providers and government regulators.” He adds, “all of this will require the federal government to get more involved in [transportation planning and funding] than it has of late. And heavy trucks must be part of that equation.”

The National Association of City Transportation Officials, which is expected to soon release its guidance on smart highways and vehicles, has already promoted several policymaking principles. These include calling for federal policies to be developed on data-sharing requirements and developing expressway plans that emphasize modernization over expansion, so roadside infrastructure is ready to accommodate the needs of autonomous vehicles.

During the extensive testing that will be required in the lengthy run up to adopting autonomous vehicles on a grand scale, NACTO suggests that the use of partially automated vehicles should be limited to controlled environments – like highways.

That opinion underscores the major role trucking will need to play in lobbying for increased highway funding, whether through public or private investments.

Those monies will be essential to cover the cost of the high-tech infrastructure that both motorists and freight haulers will rely on to save time, money and lives when driving on every shining stretch of smart highway ahead.

About the author
David Cullen

David Cullen

[Former] Business/Washington Contributing Editor

David Cullen comments on the positive and negative factors impacting trucking – from the latest government regulations and policy initiatives coming out of Washington DC to the array of business and societal pressures that also determine what truck-fleet managers must do to ensure their operations keep on driving ahead.

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