U.Va. Engineers Working to Bring the Information Highway to the Interstate

March 11, 2010 — You may not be aware of it, but the difference between your car and your smart phone is getting smaller by the minute.

You can now order a car with a Global Positioning System to help you get around, a video camera to help you back up and an emergency alert system that calls automatically for assistance if you have an accident or breakdown. And of course, every car now has an onboard computer that tracks your car's condition, helping mechanics to keep the vehicle in good running order.

Brian Smith, a University of Virginia associate professor of civil engineering, is helping the U.S. Department of Transportation make your car even smarter by embedding it in a communication network devoted exclusively to transportation.

The capacity to build this network already exists. In 2003, the Federal Communications Commission reserved part of the broadcast spectrum for dedicated short-range communications between vehicles and between vehicles and the transportation infrastructure. Smith is trying to envision how such a system, part of the DOT's IntelliDriveSM program, could be used to make highways safer, smarter and greener.

Smith notes that automatic vehicle-to-vehicle communication could significantly reduce accidents, citing the example of a car hitting an icy patch of highway.

"When its antilock brakes engage, it could send a signal to cars behind it warning them of the hazard ahead," he said. "Real-time data generated by vehicles could also enable agencies to adjust signal timing and take other measures to prevent congestion, saving billions of gallons of fuel and protecting the environment."

Smith has been awarded a $700,000 grant from the Federal Highway Administration and six states (Virginia, New York, Michigan, California, Texas and Florida) to identify the highest-potential, near-term IntelliDrive applications, determine the infrastructure required to deploy them and develop prototypes of these applications to see if they will work.

In addition, along with assistant civil engineering professor Brian Park and electrical and computer engineering professor Malathi Veeraraghavan, Smith also has been awarded a $500,000 Exploratory Advanced Research Program grant from the Federal Highway Administration to explore ways to improve ramp merging operations with IntelliDrive.

One of the challenges that Smith and his colleagues face is determining how best to use the greatly enlarged data stream that IntelliDrive will produce. For instance, automatic signal controls are currently based on algorithms that use information generated by sensors in the roadway and, to a lesser degree, by traffic cameras.

"IntelliDrive data will give us a vastly more comprehensive understanding of the traffic flow," Smith said. "Among other things, we will know where each car is located and be able to track its acceleration and deceleration rates. Our charge is to find ways to use this much richer data set to make traffic control and management more effective."

Smith is the first to admit that achieving this new vision of transportation will be no easy task, requiring input and resources from many sources. Accordingly, the IntelliDrive coalition includes federal, state and local transportation agencies, automobile manufacturers and trade associations. Nonetheless, Smith feels confident that surface transportation is on the verge of a dramatic transformation.

"Driving hasn't changed much in the last 50 years," he said. "In the next 20 years, the experience of the average traveler will be very different than what it is today."

— By Charlie Feigenoff