Wyoming officials will equip 400 snow plows patrol cars and commercial trucks with dedicated shortrange communications systems so that they can chat about the weather and send collision warnings to each other Image courtesy of Thinkstock

Testing Connected Vehicles On a Major Trucking Route

March 21, 2017
The highway will be a testing ground for dedicated short-range communications that will let 400 snow plows, patrol cars, and commercial trucks chat about the weather and send collision warnings.

High winds blow over almost a hundred commercial trucks on Wyoming’s Interstate 80 every year. The highway is infamous for heavy snow that makes it hard for drivers to see and contributes to thousands of crashes annually. Between 2015 and 2016, accidents and road closures from resulted in more than a half a billion dollars in estimated property damage.

“Really bad things happen on Interstate 80,” said Amanda Anderson, an associate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colo., at a recent conference on environmental information technology.

In February, the Associated Press published a video of a tractor trailer blowing over on a highway patrol car, and pile-ups of more than 40 trucks and cars are not uncommon. One YouTuber has published a how-to video for truckers driving in high winds on the highway.

But later this year, officials will start turning the highway into a testing ground for dedicated short-range communications that will let 400 snow plows, patrol cars, and commercial trucks chat about the weather and send collision warnings. To do this, the vehicles will share their location, speed, and other information like windshield wiper and airbag activation with other cars in the vicinity.

The pilot, funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation, will test the effectiveness of vehicle-to-vehicle communications, or V2V, in sending and receiving standardized messages 10 times per second to give cars and drivers a sense of their surroundings. Special hardware will tap into a reserved part of the broadcast spectrum to send out alerts to vehicles driving on the highway.

It is also an early test of communications systems that will be required under a proposed federal rule for all new cars and light trucks by 2023. The National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration said that V2V technology could reduce 80% of crashes that don’t involve alcohol or drugs.

The federal government is spending $4.4 million to deploy dedicated short-range communications devices in Wyoming, while it is spending around $22 million on another pilot test in New York City, which will equip 8,000 fleet vehicles and taxis with the radio hardware to interact with 350 roadside units to pick up messages. A $16 million grant is also focused on a reversible highway in Tampa Bay, Fla.

The Wyoming project will focus on using dedicated short-range communications (DSRC), for collision warnings and automated distress signals to provide information to drivers and emergency responders. It will be unique in that it will include weather data into the alerts it sends out to drivers, who will view the information on a tablet. I-80 highway is a major trucking route for up to 8,000 freight vehicles per day working for trucking companies in 45 states.

“This is not just a Wyoming issue,” said Ali Ragan, a project manager for the connected vehicle test at the Wyoming Department of Transportation, at a recent South by Southwest panel in Austin, Texas. “This isn’t even a western United States issue. It really impacts drivers from all over the country.”

Wyoming officials will install 75 roadside units along the highway that will collect information from commercial trucks, snow plows, and other vehicles equipped with on-board units. The number of cars is much smaller than other pilots, but the technologies that Wyoming officials are already using to improve safety give it a running start.

It worked with NCAR researchers on the Pikalert program, which lets cars share local weather data inferred from a car’s windshield wipers and other sensors, turning them into mobile weather stations that draft reports with satellite and weather station measurements and specialized sensors on snow plows or patrol vehicles. State officials also maintain a website that commercial drivers can update with the latest weather and road conditions.

The cars in the pilot will support forward collision warning, as well as distress signals to drivers and emergency responders. When a truck’s airbag goes off, for example, the wireless hardware would send a distress signal to a roadside unit. If a roadside unit is out of range, then the car throws the message to cars driving in the other direction, which will throw it to the next closest roadside unit.

It remains to be seen how useful the pilot program will be and officials have expressed worries in their application documents that the small scale of the tests could spoil the pilot. In Wyoming, transportation officials will place the roadside units, which have a 1,000-foot range, where there is power access and where the most crashes happen, the Wyoming Dept. of Transportation’s Ragan said.

Some automakers, wireless carriers, and chip makers claim that 5G cellular systems will be better at handling vehicle-to-vehicle communications because they will have longer range than DSRC systems and allow for more detailed data like video feed to be shared by cars. But, of course, there is no official 5G specification yet.

The DSRC systems have their own benefits by directly communicating between vehicles. They can be deployed just about anywhere, including parts of rural America that do not have advanced cellular service. Also, the cost of the system is much lower since there is no need to build infrastructure or buy up spectrum.

Bob Frey, a project manager at the Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority pilot, who also participated on the panel, said that much is riding on the success of communication pilots. “You have to convince agencies it’s worth spending money on,” he said. 

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