Smart cars, an inspiration for smart roads?

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We’re slowly moving to a world in which vehicles are able to actively map their surroundings through radars, cameras, ultrasonic and lidar. Vehicles can adjust their driving behaviour accordingly themselves if necessary, or can actively assist the driver in doing so. It’s a world in which vehicles and passengers are themselves supplying the data that is used to construct an image of the traffic situation on the road. The newest invention is vehicle-to-vehicle communication via WiFi-p (or, rather, G5). But what gains could road infrastructure obtain from this development?

Column by Paul van Koningsbruggen in OTAR, October 2014 – also available in PDF

Since the 1970s and 1980s, roadside equipment has been installed in increasing numbers over and alongside our roads, in the form of matrix displays, roadside systems of the Motorway Traffic Management system, dynamic route information panels and ramp meters. As vehicles are getting smarter and more able to communicate, we have arrived at a crossroads. But which turn are we going to take? Are we going to increasingly dismantle roadside equipment so that roads once again become primarily a civil engineering affair? Or is the road itself going to get smarter through sensors in vehicles and the data which they generate?

Smart cars

In the Smart In-car project, which was funded by a public-private partnership, data from vehicle sensors was collected centrally and turned into data that is relevant for traffic and road management. Thus the combination of ABS data and traction control data provides a picture of how slippery a road surface in a particular location is. And, to use a different example, data collected from shock absorbers does the same for potholes. The challenge is and will continue to be the business model; why would a vehicle manufacturer collect this data and why would a vehicle owner have a box placed in his vehicle to make this data available? There has to be some kind of direct personal or company benefit to be gained. We are sitting on a rich source, but we don’t know yet how to gain permanent access to it.

Smart road

This brings us to another option: renewing roadside equipment. The relatively small and undeniably conservative market of road managers has its “own” technology, such as induction loops, radars and cameras. These products have been on the market for a long time and have little innovative capacity themselves. Certainly if you compare it to the innovation that has happened in vehicle manufacturing, where the tendency has been to make vehicle better, smaller, cheaper and more energy efficient. Is it possible to use these sensors also along the roadside? Just like vehicles, the road would then be able to construct images of the traffic. And, on the basis of these pictures, to deduct warnings and recommendations, which could then be communicated to road users via WiFi-p. Road users would then in fact be receiving the same advice, but the other way around. In addition, the road manager would have better information about the status of his road, which means repair teams can be notified as soon as a pothole has been discovered.

We’re unmistakeably at a crossroads. Road managers will become ever more reluctant to accept that roadside technology is not growing at the same pace as technology in vehicles and telecommunications. Why continue to invest in renewing technology that users feel is complex and obsolete? It pays to look beyond your own backyard from time to time!

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