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Finding answers to traffic problems

By on July 3, 2013

The Intelligent Transportation Society of America (ITSA) is a trade organization that focuses on finding technological solutions to transportation problems. Road King spoke to Scott Belcher, president, about advances in managing congestion and safety on the road.

Q Why has traffic congestion in the U.S. increased and how can technology ease it?

A During the recent financial crisis in the United States, traffic congestion declined as people had less disposable income and gas prices increased. As the economy grows, even at a slow rate, and as gas prices stabilize, congestion has begun to pick up again. That’s good in that it reflects a healthier economy, with more goods and services being moved. It also makes life more difficult for truckers.

On highways, one of the main causes of congestion is accidents. So the better that states can manage their highways and toll roads to get them cleared, the better they can manage the congestion. Some are very effective at it. They have trucks that are placed at various distances, 24-hours-a-day to respond. They use performance measures on how quickly they can move vehicles involved in an accident off the highways.

There’s a wide variety of safety technology for trucks today — 360-degree awareness, adaptive cruise control, lane departure warnings, braking assist and more. There is technology that alerts drivers who are showing signs of drowsiness to let them know they need to pull over. We’re starting to see more aftermarket opportunities, as well, for safety application.

Q What’s coming in the future that might make roads safer?

A The future of managing traffic safety is connected vehicle technology, consisting of vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications. This will make our transportation system smarter by providing connected radios that would enable cars, trucks, buses and trains to “talk” to each other, as well as to traffic signals, school and work zones, toll booths and other types of infrastructure. This technology could alert drivers, through in-vehicle warnings, of a potential hazardous roadway condition or impending collision.

There has been a lot of research on this for the past 10-15 years, and right now the largest model deployment of connected vehicle technology and real-world applications is taking place in Ann Arbor, Mich.

The Connected Vehicle Safety Pilot program is studying the effectiveness of connected vehicle technology at reducing crashes without causing unnecessary driver distraction or having other unintended consequences. Approximately 3,000 vehicles have been equipped with vehicle-to-vehicle communications devices. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has conducted research on connected vehicle technology and concluded that a connected vehicle network could address approximately 80 percent of all unimpaired vehicle crash scenarios, saving many thousands of lives that are lost to crashes each year. That is bigger than seat belts, electronic stability control and air bags.

NHTSA will use the results of the pilot as part of their determination, expected by the end of this year, on whether and how to proceed with formal action to require or encourage connected vehicle technologies for cars. A decision on trucks is expected in 2014.

Q What obstacles stand in the way of implementing traffic solutions?

A When we talk about the connected vehicle program or other ITSA initiatives that use GPS, there are concerns about privacy. Auto and truck manufacturers are concerned about security, to stay ahead of hackers. The more system technology you deploy, the more you need to be concerned about that.

Another impediment is that we are in a resource-constrained environment right now. The amount of money we collect and invest in infrastructure has declined significantly. Truckers see that better than most. The cost to merely maintain our infrastructure is increasingly high, let alone having funds to deploy new technology to make our roadways more efficient and safer.

Q And how can those obstacles be overcome?

A  Look for high occupancy toll (HOT) lanes, in which a state will set aside a lane or two of highway that will be tolled based on the level of traffic. But they will also guarantee a minimum speed on the lane.

So a truck driver or fleet will have to make some hard choices. If there is congestion, that means you’ll be traveling at 25 mph during that time period on the standard lane. Or you have the option to use the HOT lane for $5 more and have a guarantee that traffic is moving at 55 mph. That is the question truckers will need to think about — the value of time.

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