By Ramsey Scott
Wyoming Tribune Eagle
Via Wyoming News Exchange
CHEYENNE — Wyoming is gearing up to be the lead car in the country's drive for a safer highway system.
The Wyoming Department of Transportation is in the final stages of rolling out its part of a national pilot program to test the effectiveness of connected vehicle technology. The program, one of three testing sites in the nation, will outfit 400 vehicles in Wyoming with new connected systems that travel along Interstate 80 on a regular basis.
The systems allow vehicles to share information with other equipped cars and trucks, and with roadside beacons that then transmit that information both to other cars and to WYDOT's own system. That information being shared between cars allows drivers to immediately know if there's a slowdown ahead or if an accident has closed down a lane on the interstate, said Ali Ragan, WYDOT's GIS/ITS project manager.
"The idea is to make people safer drivers," Ragan said. "The alerts are non-obtrusive. We're not asking people to read a message. It's an icon and it's in a standard place. For example if you're in a variable speed zone, you would just see an icon of what the speed limit is in that area."
If a car is involved in an accident or has slammed on the brakes to avoid a road hazard, that information is broadcast to other vehicles in the vicinity. That, in turn, notifies other drivers of the need to slow down or immediately stop. The system also transmits information to any nearby roadside communication device, which in turn would notify WYDOT of the danger and allow the agency to notify its crews and state highway patrol of the need to respond to the area.
The systems also will allow WYDOT to notify vehicles in a certain area of changes in road conditions, and any additional travel information that might be needed to help someone drive safely, Ragan said.
The systems being used in the program consist of an antenna, a dedicated short-range communication device and a tablet that gives safety information to drivers through symbols or audio alerts. And WYDOT has installed 75 roadside units in hot spots along I-80 where there has been significant accident activity, said Vince Garcia, WYDOT's GIS/ITS manager.
"(The system) is capable of communicating with other vehicles quickly. Ten times a second they are communicating their heading, their position and their speed so other vehicles in the stream of traffic knows what other vehicles are doing," Garcia said.
WYDOT is in the midst of outfitting 100 state-owned vehicles, including snow plows and Wyoming Highway Patrol cars, along with 300 trucks working in the transportation industry. Once the vehicles have the new computer systems on board, the next step will be putting the technology to the test, hopefully by mid-February, Garcia said.
The program's goal is to test whether these systems actually help increase safety on the road. While 400 vehicles on one of the busiest stretches of interstate in the country might not help dramatically improve safety, Garcia said it can at least show whether these systems have a significant impact on drivers participating in the program.
"I don't think we would be doing this if we weren't hopeful it could improve safety," Garcia said. "This is a case where you don't have to have every vehicle instrument in order to be effective. If you have a few vehicles instrument and they start slowing down, other cars in the traffic stream tend to respond."
It's hard to prove when an accident didn't occur, Ragan said. But the systems will capture information like how long after receiving an alert did a driver slow down, and if a notification about the possibility of black ice on the road ahead caused a driver to change their driving.
"We're only (collecting the data) because we need to demonstrate the effectiveness or lack of effectiveness of the technology," Ragan said. "That's not something that would happen after the program ends."
Garcia said after the pilot program ends, the system will still operate to help increase safety on I-80. And there are multiple safeguards to ensure any information broadcast from a vehicle is non-identifiable.
Each car is given a randomly generated identification number, which in turn is changed to another number every few minutes. And if a car drives off the Interstate, it would stop broadcasting to any WYDOT system.
"We're not going to use this system to try and tell highway patrol someone is speeding," Garcia said.
While Wyoming is one of three pilot sites - the others being in Florida and New York - multiple states are working on how to adapt their infrastructure to the wave of cars that will be equipped with some form of connectivity, Garcia said.
Those states are working on how to prepare their highways for connected technology, because soon, every new car on the road could have a way to communicate with the cars around it. Toyota has announced it plans to start selling cars in the United States with connected technology by 2021 and other manufacturers are following suit.
"Virtually every other state is doing something with connected vehicles. It's growing quick," Garcia said. "This is quickly emerging technology. And that's why we're documenting as much information as possible for other states to help them figure out infrastructure."