Driving Toward the Future: Intelligent Vehicles Seek Intelligent Infrastructure
Alykhan Mohamed describes the future of transportation as one that could go either way—a hell of autonomous vehicles (AVs) mindlessly roaming the streets, causing ever more congestion, or a heavenly mobility network that is efficient and intermodal and contributes to sustainability, social justice and safety.
“The takeaway,” says Mohamed, an associate planner with Sasaki, “is that it’s in our hands. As engineers or urban planners or architects, we try to identify decision points. Either we do not act and increase pollution and congestion, or we work hand in hand with other partners to figure out how to reach our goals.”
Around the country and the world, efforts are underway to do just that. From Smart Columbus mobility projects (ENR 12/23-30/19 p. 17) to the Smart Cities smart intersection challenge launched by Parsons with Amazon Web Services and Verizon last year, traditional transportation industry entities are working with technology companies and vehicle manufacturers on pilot projects that will inform how infrastructure decisions are made moving forward.
“There’s a vision of an autonomous world, but the most interesting and complicated pieces are everything that happens in between,” says Andrew Liu, Parsons’ senior vice president for smart cities. “Electric vehicles have been here for a while and are becoming more efficient and long-lasting. Even so, there’s still only about 2% penetration rate. For autonomous vehicles, the penetration will take longer. The question is when will we see impacts. In the short term, codes for how many parking spaces you need per square foot will probably change. Curbs need to change. In an autonomous world, lanes can be a little narrower.”
But it’s not just highways and cities that need to be reexamined, cautions Martin Zogran, principal urban designer with Sasaki, which released an extensive report in 2018 on the potential impacts of AVs. “[AVs] need to be thought of as having different applications for different areas,” he says. “People think about the dense urban core. What about suburban neighborhoods? No one size fits all. We’re seeing dynamic and rapidly evolving conversations with cities and developers. Everyone who has to deal with parking is looking at a different reality.”
Jim Barbaresso, national practice leader for intelligent transportation and emerging mobility solutions with HNTB, adds that rights-of-way management will be a challenge as new technologies and alternative mobility options grow. “We’ll have to provide a dynamic management solution set that will address the needs of modern cities. That includes public transit and shuttles, bikes, scooters and other micromobility solutions.”
Malcolm Dougherty, senior vice president with Michael Baker International, notes that during his tenure as director of the California Transportation Dept., “we made a move to change the standards for delineation of stripes on roads. We made them wider and brighter, knowing that AVs would someday navigate them.” However, he notes, road geometry won’t change significantly for a while. “For there to be twice as many cars fitting into a lane, they all have to be AVs and connected. One human driver messes the whole thing up. I could see low-speed shuttles with dedicated thoroughfares in controlled environments or in a first mile-last mile situation.” Covering the gap between the “first mile” or the “last mile”—the gap between, say, a person’s home and a train station or bus stop that could be filled by options other than cars—is a major focus of many pilot projects being conducted in the U.S.
Local Motors, AAA Northern California and the Contra Costa Transportation Authority (CCTA) launched a pilot of Local Motor’s electric, 3D-printed AV shuttle called Olli at GoMentum Station, with future plans of deployment near transit stations around Northern California. GoMentum Station is the largest closed-course testing facility for connected and automated vehicles in the United States, managed and operated by AAA Northern California, with some 20 miles of roads. A new vehicle-to-everything (V2X) lab, connecting vehicles to cells phones and other wireless communication sources, will test connected technologies.
“We’re trying to change the way we approach safety using sensor data from vehicles,” notes Randy Iwasaki, CCTA executive director. Other projects include a shared AV for a Walnut Creek senior community, AV shuttle service with a self-docking wheelchair apparatus for patients at County Hospital in Martinez and preparing the Interstate 680 corridor for AVs, he says.
In Florida, the Jacksonville Transportation Authority (JTA) is preparing another type of corridor for AVs—an elevated guideway originally built for monorail that will be converted for AVs and expanded through street-level connections. The JTA will use a $12.5-million federal Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development [BUILD] grant awarded in 2019 to implement the first phase of the Ultimate Urban Circulator program, called the Bay Street Innovation Corridor. This comprises a three-mile, street-level loop along East Bay Street in downtown Jacksonville.
The next phase will see the first stretch of the elevated Skyway monorail system converted to accommodate AVs. The project will remove the center guide beam and create an elevated roadway called Autonomous Avenue. From there, the JTA will begin converting the entire 2.5-mile alignment to accommodate these emerging technologies, followed by an expansion of the network into nearby neighborhoods.
“We will create ramps or other mechanisms to connect to at-grade sections and neighborhood extensions,” says Bernard Schmidt, JTA vice president of automation. Private-sector contributions ramped the funds up to $44 million, he says. “We will complete the original intent to connect downtown and neighborhoods with the medical complex, waterfront districts and entertainment areas.”
The project has received enough attention to prompt a Feb. 19 industry forum for AV manufacturers, tech companies, venture capitalists and banks to learn about the full four-phase program, he adds. One challenge is not knowing which of the many fledgling manufacturers and tech providers will last. “The thing that keeps me awake at night is that I have to choose the iPhone, not the Blackberry, of vehicles,” Schmidt says.
David Swallow, deputy chief executive officer for the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada, notes that the commission has been collaborating with the JTA, having also won a BUILD grant for AV service, pedestrian-safety devices and smart-transit shelters for a route to the Las Vegas Medical District.
RTC has several other AV pilot programs underway, including a partnership with Lyft and an autonomous shuttle on a half-mile loop through downtown Las Vegas, says Swallow. RTC also is using the artificial-intelligence-driven WayCare platform, which uses weather data, along with information on traffic flow and speed, to anticipate where congestion or a possible crash could occur. “We did trials on a couple of freeway segments … and saw a 17% decrease in crashes,” says Swallow.
The Nevada RTC and the Georgia Dept. of Transportation recently held technology showcases, GDOT for the first time. “These are this year’s technologies—five years ago it would have been very different,” says Andrew Heath, GDOT traffic engineer. “A lot of applications from the connected-vehicle [CV] perspective wouldn’t have existed. Five years from now, a whole other suite will be demonstrated.” CVs are vehicles augmented with automatic brake sensors and other technologies that let them wirelessly communicate with other vehicles or surrounding smart infrastructure.
GDOT’s initial technology backbone was built in anticipation of the 1996 Olympics, and since then, it has added a navigation platform, says Heath. “Right now, we invest a decent amount in understanding how traffic signals are operating and what traffic is like at any given point.” GDOT also has invested in signal software to connect all traffic signals statewide and gain real-time diagnostic information, including pavement conditions. “It will help inform maintenance and life-cycle practices” for infrastructure, he says.
GDOT has installed 400 roadside units designed to communicate with CVs through the 5.9 GHz spectrum and plans to expand that to 1,600. “We want to be prepared for when vehicles are deployed with this connectivity as part of the model,” says Heath.
In Tampa, Fla., another pilot program is well underway. The Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority (THEA) began a $25-million project in 2016 as one of three participants in the U.S. Dept. of Transportation’s Connected Vehicle Pilot program. In 2017 to 2018, “we started developing and testing the apps on roadside and onboard units,” says Steve Novosad, senior project manager with HNTB, which oversees the project. “We shipped data to the Center for Urban Transportation Research [CUTR] to evaluate.”
Data from more than 1,000 vehicles, 10 buses and eight streetcars have been processed, and CUTR will publish the results this spring, Novosad says. The project included vehicle-to-vehicle apps for brake-light warnings, radar and cameras to examine traffic patterns and then post appropriate speeds, alerts to drivers going the wrong way on reversible lanes, LiDAR to track pedestrian movements at crosswalks and warning signals to avoid collisions between vehicles and streetcars.
“The last big technology jump we had was all-electronic tolling, which increased capacity by 30%,” says Bob Frey, THEA’s director of planning and innovation. These new technologies “will allow us to take care of our systems more effectively. This is the next step.”
However, Frey adds that it might be a while “before we get to the point where there’s enough saturation to really see the benefits.” One issue, he says, is the Federal Communications Commission’s proposal to open up the 5.9 GHz band spectrum to non-transportation-related communication. Smart vehicles rely on the dedicated spectrum for high-speed transmission of data. Transportation groups have urged the FCC to reconsider its plans.
Multiple stakeholders worked to create the DriveOhio program, including the Council of Governments of Northeast Ohio, Smart Columbus and several universities, says Luke Stedke, communications manager for DriveOhio. In 2018, an executive order from then Governor John Kasich (R) established DriveOhio as “a one-stop shop for AV technology,” says Stedke.
Among the DriveOhio test projects is the 33 Smart Mobility Corridor, where 35 miles will be fitted with high-capacity, fiber-optic cable and roadside sensors to test AVs. “We hope to have it all up and running by the end of July,” says Stedke. The state also is collaborating with agencies and universities in Michigan and Pennsylvania in a Smart Belt Coalition, and “we’re bouncing ideas with other states like Minnesota,” says Stedke. “It’s a team sport. We have a grant in partnership with Indiana for automated trucking on Interstate 70 from Indianapolis to Columbus. Innovation-wise, we’re in a true paradigm shift, and partnership is part of that story.”
It’s also the story for the Athena project, which aims to create a digital twin of Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. The National Renewable Energy Lab is working with DFW and with other airports and ports to provide support. “This is a first-of-its-kind operational model of an airport for NREL, and we are optimistic that we’ll be able to use the digital twin to better understand how current policies impact congestion and emissions, as well as how to best plan for future demand scenarios,” says Monte Lunacek, NREL spokesperson.
Robert Horton, DFW vice president of environmental affairs, says the project was inspired by the realization that transportation has surpassed power plants as the biggest contributor of greenhouse gases. “We set a goal to reinvent our mobility network and reduce energy use by 50% by 2050.”
To address environment, congestion, economic development and social impact, “we had to start looking at technology,” Horton adds. DFW worked with NREL to use its advanced computing resources to study how to better coordinate the movement of people and freight. It won a $5-million grant in 2018. NREL is collecting data, including flight schedules, traffic flows and regional mobility patterns.
The three-year effort is expected to inform smart mobility decisions such as when to run what size shuttle buses, how to optimize traffic signals when there is congestion, how new charging stations for electric vehicles might affect the power grid and when to enable AVs. “We want to adapt infrastructure development to enable access to those new modes of transport,” says Horton. “We can look at what-if scenarios that can help us explore new models and operational concepts and de-risk future construction. Rather than build a component and see a year later that it’s not working, we can test it in that virtual environment and pick an optimal development plan.”
While there is no fixed date for when autonomous and connected vehicles will seriously affect existing infrastructure, the transportation sector is starting to connect with the tech world. “We’re changing the way we do business,” says THEA’s Frey. “Ten years ago there was no software engineer in a DOT or local road operator’s office. Now we have whole departments. We’re starting to see different skill sets come into our discipline. It’s changing how we do procurement and maintenance. There are cloud businesses, subscription services—a third party between us and roadway safety. We have to make sure they understand safety 24/7.”