Connected Vehicles & Smart Infrastructure

While the future of transportation may not include the flying cars from "The Jetsons" or "Back to the Future," it is still light-years beyond our current travel methods.

We are all familiar with the litany of concerns regarding our land-based transportation system, including inadequate infrastructure, traffic congestion, energy usage, pollution, and safety.

On a recent tour of the Transportation Technology R&D Center at Argonne National Labs, I was able to see first-hand some of the research the U.S. Department of Energy is coordinating to address these issues. Two of the most promising technologies are vehicle-to-vehicle communications (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications (V2I).

According to a 2014 report from the DOT’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), traffic accidents cause $277 billion in economic losses—or nearly two percent of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP)—each year. The NHTSA is currently working on a plan to require all new vehicles sold in the United States be equipped with V2V communication systems. The DOT estimates this technology could eliminate 70 to 80 percent of the accidents caused by driver error when used in conjunction with lane control, auto-braking, and adaptive cruise control.

Currently, the United States consumes over four billion barrels of oil annually for surface transportation. This represents over 60 percent of the total oil used in our country. Even a small change in fuel usage would have a significant effect on transportation costs. A European Commission project Safe Road Trains for the Environment (SARTRE) has shown in field trials that semi-automated road trains of linked vehicles offer the potential to reduce fuel consumption by eight to 16 percent. At the recent historical price of oil, this would equate to an annual savings of $30 to $60 billion per year in fuel costs.

A study commissioned by the American Society of Civil Engineers indicated that based on current transportation methods and technology, by the year 2020 we would need to spend at least $800 billion more on our roads and bridges than is currently planned to meet existing and projected transportation needs. V2V technology may alleviate the need for some of this spending. DOT studies show that adaptive cruise control has the potential to increase lane capacity as much as 100 percent by allowing cars to travel closer together. V2V technology will allow vehicles to platoon together, such that all the vehicles in a lane would simultaneously speed up or slow down, reducing stop-and-go driving and smoothing out traffic flow.

In addition to V2V technology, work is being done on traffic automation to wirelessly link vehicles to the physical transportation infrastructure. This involves dynamic traffic lights that can change their timing based on current traffic flows; traffic flow and route management, where cars are directed to alternative routes to minimize congestion; as well as managed lanes to improve safety and traffic flow. Researchers at Argonne National Labs have developed an integrated transportation model called POLARIS to test these concepts at a regional level by modeling travelers and traffic flows in the greater Chicago area. They have found that delays can be reduced by almost 20 percent using various combinations of these tools. According to Dr. Joshua Auld, who is instrumental in the research, "Understanding how V2V and V2I work together as a system is critical as different technologies sometimes work at cross-purposes in meeting goals of safety, mobility, and environmental improvement."

In order for the full benefit of these technologies to be realized, several things would need to happen, such as securing the network against hackers bent on causing harm, ensuring enough vehicles are equipped with the technology to reach a tipping point where the system works, and overcoming fears of "Big Brother" oversight.

Vehicle-to-Vehicle communications and Vehicle-to-Infrastructure technologies will revolutionize transportation by making our road system safer, more efficient, and less dependent upon the human element for effective decision-making.

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