Team Revs Up Transportation’s Internet of Things

Connected vehicles are on the horizon, and researchers in the UA College of Engineering are making sure roadway infrastructures are up to speed for all types of vehicles to communicate with one another.

For all their anti-theft, fuel efficiency and satellite radio features, even the priciest new cars still travel on roads using decades-old traffic management technology, and their fate relies in large part on what drivers can see through windows or in rear-view mirrors.

“Drivers communicate wirelessly on smartphones with people around the globe, but their cars can’t communicate with cars around the corner,” said UA professor of systems engineering Larry Head. “That’s about to change. Vehicle-to-infrastructure and vehicle-to-vehicle communications, or connected cars, are on the horizon -- and their capabilities will significantly change how traffic is managed and how drivers experience the road.”

On March 17, the traffic systems expert and his graduate students took the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, first responders, local, state and national transportation officials and high school students on a bus ride at the Arizona Connected Vehicle Test Bed to show them just what connected vehicles can do.

The 2.3-mile live stretch of road in Anthem, a Phoenix suburb of 23,000, features Dedicated Short Range Communications radios, or DSRCs, mounted in demo buses and emergency vehicles, atop light poles, and in roadside equipment boxes at intersections. The wireless devices, developed by Savari Inc., work with traffic signal controllers developed by Econolite, both California-based companies. The equipment operates with optimization and scheduling algorithms developed by Head and his UA graduate researchers to manage the traffic signals in a revolutionary new way.

Along the test ride, the Valley Metro bus received messages from traffic signals, computed how long it would take to reach the signals, and sent requests for service back to the signals.

Using UA algorithms, the signals prioritized approaching vehicles -- passenger, transit, emergency and commercial. At one intersection, a fire truck responding to a 911 call -- for which an icon flashed on a monitor mounted in front of the bus before the emergency vehicle roared up -- got the green light first. The monitor also alerted the bus of upcoming construction and school zones.

First Responders First

There are approximately 30,000 crashes involving fire trucks in the United States each year, and fire truck crashes are the second leading cause of death among firefighters.

“Those numbers seem way too high for people trying to save other people’s lives,” Head said.

But Head and his team quickly realized their technology could benefit even more people, and expanded their scope to protecting everyday drivers and passengers.

The researchers recently completed the Anthem second phase, with $2 million from the U.S. Department of Transportation, partner states, and the Maricopa County Department of Transportation.

Working with researchers from the California Partners for Advanced Transportation Technology, or PATH, program, Head’s team enabled communication not just between traffic lights and emergency vehicles, but with many other vehicles as well. They also made it possible for all of the vehicles to communicate in real time.

“This capability for multiple vehicles to simultaneously request and receive traffic signal priority is what makes our system unique,” Head said.

Cars equipped with DSRCs can alert drivers to hazards up to few hundred meters away, out of their line of sight -- a car slipping on ice around a curve or an oncoming car without headlights, for example.

Connected cars should start rolling out next year, and Head predicts national and state laws requiring DSRC will soon follow, as the public safety benefits become apparent.

“In 2014, more than 33,000 people were killed in traffic crashes. Technology can help make travel safer. We expect DSRC technology will be mandatory in all new vehicles, just like seatbelts.”

Reducing Congestion, Pollution

In addition to saving lives, connected roadway infrastructure and vehicles can reduce congestion and pollution.

“Fewer collisions mean fewer bottlenecks,” Head said, adding that connected vehicles could also encourage more people to just leave their cars at home.

“Connected transportation systems can help city buses stay on schedule. If public transit is more reliable, more residents may use it.”

Head is pursuing funding for the project’s third phase, to include putting DSRCs in up to 20 percent of vehicles used by Anthem residents.

“These connected cars traveling on our test bed will give us valuable knowledge about the potential of this technology to improve transportation system performance,” he said.

Another part of Phase 3 involves putting DSRCs in freight trucks that travel on a stretch of Arizona State Route 85 in an industrial area of Phoenix.

“Every time a freight truck stops and starts up again, it emits exhaust and can cause asphalt to buckle. By keeping these trucks moving smoothly, we can reduce pollution in nearby communities,” Head said.

Safe Testing for Self-Driving Cars

Head’s work extends beyond connected infrastructure and vehicles.

On March 9, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey appointed him and other transportation, safety and policy experts, including UA senior associate vice president for legislation and community relations Timothy Bee, to a new Arizona Self-Driving Vehicle Oversight Committee. The group will support research and development of self-driving cars and advise the Arizona Department of Transportation and other agencies and universities on testing and operating the vehicles on public roads.

It’s the latest of several honors in 2016 for Head, including a D. Grant Mickle Award from the Transportation Research Board of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and a da Vinci Fellowship from the UA College of Engineering.


Top picture: Larry Head explains connected vehicle technology to bus riders before a demonstration in Anthem, Arizona. The data on the display monitor, based on UA-developed algorithms, alert the driver to hazards. Photo by Pete Brown.