The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.


How will "connected vehicles" affect urbanism?

A consortium of Virginia schools will soon start testing vehicles in Fairfax County that can talk to each other and their surroundings. But what will "connected vehicles" (CV) really mean for transportation and urbanism?

Photo by Steven Mackay.

Researchers have attached tracking equipment to light poles and other roadside infrastructure in and around Merrifield, including stretches of I-66, Lee Highway, and Route 50. The roadside equipment will communicate with devices about the size of an E-ZPass installed in 12 "connected vehicles," including a bus, semi-truck, cars, and motorcycles.

The devices collect data such as acceleration, braking, and curve handling. Researchers hope that the new system will dramatically reduce highway crashes, increase fuel efficiency, and improve air quality.

"The intersection can say 'there is snow happening right here,'" explains Gabrielle Laskey of the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. Conversely, if a connected car were to experience a loss of traction, it would relay that information to the roadside devices so authorities would know the precise location of hazardous conditions.

Left: a CV data collection unit. Right: an in-car CV display. Photo from the VTTI.

The research will focus on ways to improve both safety and mobility. "If we can detect initial braking, we can slow vehicles down and message the driver, saying something like 'Slow traffic ahead. Reduce speed to 45 mph' or 'Left lane closed ahead; merge right,'" said VDOT Spokesperson Cathy McGhee.

Study will involve area drivers and "regular" cars

The CV technology will go further than the Active Traffic Management System of overhead dynamic signs VDOT will soon install on I-66. The CV system "can give information directly to the driver and provide an additional level of information," said McGhee.

Although the CV roadside equipment is already in place in Merrifield, the connected vehicles are undergoing final road testing on the Virginia test track in Blacksburg. In January, those vehicles plus another 50 operated by VDOT will roll out on Merrifield highways.

In the spring, researchers will seek out drivers of an additional 200 "regular" vehicles through ads on Craigslist and in the Washington Post. Their cars will receive communication devices similar to test vehicles' which will notify drivers verbally or by tone through a GPS-sized display. Drivers who volunteer for the program will not need specialized driving skills. "We want to use na´ve participants and make these devices as useful and available as a cell phone," says Laskey.

Over the next couple of years, a consortium of research institutions consisting of Virginia Tech, the University of Virginia, and Morgan State University will conduct 19 separate CV research studies, about half of which will have components in the Merrifield test bed, at a projected cost of $14 million.

One study looks at road signs that can switch from "yield" to "stop," depending on conditions. Another examines how to dim or shut off roadway lighting when it is not needed. And a study in Baltimore involves the use of smart phones and looks at safety and congestion issues related to public transit, transit passengers, pedestrians, and bicyclists.

The new CV technology can also work in conjunction with some current safety systems which use video to "see" non-connected items, such as a pedestrian in a crosswalk, then alert the connected vehicle. The system helps connected vehicles operate on the roadways before a fully connected or automated roadway system exists.

How will CV influence our transportation network?

CV technology could change the way we use and design our streets. Since connected vehicles will alert drivers to imminent collisions, CV technology is expected to drop the crash rate at least by 50 percent, according Thomas Dingus, director of the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, which is coordinating the public-private venture.

Dingus and a CV motorcycle. Photo by the Jessamine Kane-Wiseley.

Connected vehicles will be able to safely travel much closer together than cars can today, vastly improving the efficiency of existing highway infrastructure. At the CV system's public debut on June 6, Governor McDonnell noted that the technology "could do as much to help alleviate congestion as the building or widening of new highways."

Researchers say CV technology could be in widespread use within five years, which Virginia and Maryland should keep in mind as they decide how to spend billions in new transportation funding. Cars traveling closer together will require less space, so road widenings might not be necessary. On already wide streets, the extra space could be used for bike lanes, sidewalks, or landscaping. Building smaller streets not only costs less, but it frees up room for buildings and open space, making communities more compact and preserving land.

If you'd like to learn more about connected vehicles, USDOT is holding a public meeting in Arlington from September 24 to 26. The agenda includes information about the CV safety program and the Intelligent Transportation Systems Strategic Plan for 2015 to 2019.

Jenifer Joy Madden is a multi-media journalist and founder of Vice chair of the Fairfax Co. Transportation Advisory Commission, she was instrumental in the Tysons Metrorail Station Access Management Project and planned a multi-purpose trail system that connects to Tysons.  


Add a comment »

At least his name isn't Richard Dingus.

by Fischy (Ed F.) on Sep 13, 2013 10:49 am • linkreport

Connected vehicles would indeed help improve transportation, but for an article about "affecting urbanism", there's no mention of the single-most important problem with so many cars: the parking necessary to house them.

by Adam L on Sep 13, 2013 10:57 am • linkreport

I hope it doesn't affect it much at all. At least when I think of urbanism I think of design and criteria that takes a lot of things into consideration. Not just the cars, regardless of how smart they are.

by drumz on Sep 13, 2013 11:03 am • linkreport

What I see hope in is self driving vehicles. I could see a cultural shift from owning a vehicle (not everyone for sure - but in urban areas) to being a zipcar like member with the important distinction that the car would drop you off and leave to complete another trip or be housed in some decentralized parking structures. Computer algorithms can manage cars and parking much more efficiently than human beings. This obviously won't eliminate mass transit because people will still need to move in large numbers downtown efficiently but instead of say driving to a metro station or taking inefficient bus routes, lots of people could just self driving cars to complete that portion of their trip. Eventually it would make it much easier for buses and like the get road priority because it coudl be done automatically. And cars would move off congested routes which would reduce pollution. Finally people with disabilities and the elderly would have exponentially more mobility within reach.

by BTA on Sep 13, 2013 11:15 am • linkreport

Oh and the self driving cars could be a lot smaller since the majority of commute trips are 2 or less people with little luggage room needed.

by BTA on Sep 13, 2013 11:16 am • linkreport

If the *cars* respond to the information, it might help improve traffic. If the *drivers* are supposed to respond to "reduce speed to 45 mph," I don't think they'll do any better than they do with "speed limit 45 mph" or "yield to pedestrians" or "stop."

by Steve Dunham on Sep 13, 2013 12:13 pm • linkreport

Nice incremental technology improvement. Doesn't affect land use issues at all because as Adam L said, the issues surrounding political pressure to widen roads, increase speed limits, build more parking, and destroy traditional walkable neighborhoods/kneecap new ones from flourishing is unchanged.

by Cavan on Sep 13, 2013 12:37 pm • linkreport

I would think the biggest development here of interest to GGW readers is enhanced safety for pedestrians.

by Chris S. on Sep 16, 2013 9:59 am • linkreport

Add a Comment

Name: (will be displayed on the comments page)

Email: (must be your real address, but will be kept private)

URL: (optional, will be displayed)

You can use some HTML, like <blockquote>quoting another comment</blockquote>, <i>italics</i>, and <a href="http://url_here">hyperlinks</a>. More here.

Your comment:

By submitting a comment, you agree to abide by our comment policy.
Notify me of followup comments via email. (You can also subscribe without commenting.)
Save my name and email address on this computer so I don't have to enter it next time, and so I don't have to answer the anti-spam map challenge question in the future.


Support Us