DoT technology research to lead to safer drivers, roadways

Thursday - 4/24/2014, 8:57am EDT

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The Transportation Department is trying to make cars smarter and drivers safer. Connected vehicle technology is the next big thing coming to intelligent transportation.

Greg Winfree, the assistant secretary for research and technology at the Transportation Department, said government-funded research into vehicle-to-vehicle infrastructure is key to making it safer to be on the road.

"It's the ability of vehicles to communicate with each other by sending relative position messages and situational awareness all in the name of avoiding accidents," Winfree said, describing the concept behind vehicle-to-vehicle communications. "The first 50 years here at DoT focused on how do you have occupants of vehicles survive crashes? We saw seatbelts. We saw air bags become standard equipment and other technologies designed to protect the occupants. We see the next 50 years as being avoiding crashes altogether."

Vehicle-to-vehicle communications relies on near-field, real time communication technologies that come from other cars or from roadside sensors that would alert drivers with warnings in enough time to prevent accidents.

"We foresee that as game-changing technology that is soon to be implemented. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's announcement [in 2013] stated they are working on rules to have this implemented in the American vehicle fleet. Also in 2014, there is a decision coming from NHTSA regarding heavy trucks. This has to do with trucks, buses and all other vehicles on the roadway," he said. "In 2015, Federal Highway Administration will be considering guidelines for infrastructure. This is important because cars that are equipped with this technology will have the ability to receive messaging from the roadside. You can receive a message if you are about to cross a bridge and it's 38 degrees, you might get a warning that there might be black ice. It may not be apparent because your thermometer says it's 38 degrees, but an elevated roadway tends to freeze before the ground. You can receive those kinds of messages. You can receive messages about school zones, construction workers at sites. We see this entire communications package as providing the next level of safety on our roadways."

In the end, the goal, if these communications technologies work and are accepted by the auto industry, is to help reduce the 32,000 highway fatalities that happen each year.

That's where Winfree's office comes in. The Office of the Assistant Secretary for Research and Technology, which used to be known as the Research and Innovative Technology Administration (RITA), before Congress changed the office's name in January, acts as a conduit among several DoT operating divisions.

The Office of Research and Technology brings together data, research and technology transfer capabilities from Intelligent Transportation Systems, positioning, navigation and timing, as well as the R&D technology university transportation centers, Transportation Safety Institute and the Volpe National Transportation Systems Center.

"There are nine different operating administrations, and each have their own funding, and each have their own research programs. Years ago there was a recognition that to extract the maximum value from the taxpayer dollar, it made better sense to have one research program with multiple deliverables operating administration as opposed to each having their own discreet programs," Winfree said. "We bring together the associate administrators of research from across the department. We are aware of what they're working on. We are aware of what their scientific and innovation priorities are, and where we can bring parties together and start to talk about collaboration, that's what we charted to do."

Just like walkie-talkies

Winfree said he recently went to the Consumer Electronics Show and saw a variety of commercial developers, especially focused on smartphones, trying to build upon DoT's initial research and development in vehicle-to-vehicle communications.

"Dedicated short-range communications is basically a walkie-talkie where, just like when you were a kid, you could send a message to mom and she could send a message back. It's a lot more sophisticated than that, don't let me under-sell it," he said. "It will be sending sophisticated safety messages, and sophisticated positioning and timing messages between vehicles and between the roadways. It will be a closed system, but it's a system that relies on that kind of technology. We are looking to ensure privacy. There is no data concerning who is driving being interchanged. These are short latency, 10 times per second messages about relative positioning and timing."

Winfree said DoT also is working with smartphone companies to incorporate these technologies into smartphones to help make pedestrians, bicyclers and others safer as they travel on the roadways.

"What we experimented through 2012 in Ann Arbor in our connected vehicle safety pilot utilized communications technology that was integrated into the vehicles," he said. "The 3,000 cars had radio transmitters that were installed and we incorporated motorcycles. The next step is vehicles to anything. The day to day user will be connected into the connected vehicle environment. We have a test platform in Anthem, Ariz., that's looking at vehicles-to-vehicle, vehicle-to- infrastructure to help transit and emergency vehicles, but they've also worked with a couple of smartphone companies to help the visually impaired cross the streets and use the roadways and sidewalks around the community."

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