Living Lab Tests and Deploys New Traffic Technology

Living Lab Tests and Deploys New Traffic Technology

This piece was originally published in the May/June 2020 issue of electroindustry.

by Sarah Mulligan, Product Manager, Applied Information, Inc.

Ms. Mulligan devises and delivers marketing messaging for Applied Information.

A new connected vehicle facility opened north of Atlanta, Georgia, this year, providing a platform for diverse industries to assess and implement new traffic technology. This hub, dubbed the iATL (Infrastructure-Automotive Technology Laboratory), is both an office space and a living lab connected to a growing number of connected vehicle infrastructure devices in a wide- scale early deployment expected to grow to more than 1,000 intersections by the end of 2020.

“The iATL is where automakers, roadway operators, and technology companies can come together and make the vision of connected vehicles a reality now,” said Bryan Mulligan, President of Applied Information and Chair of the NEMA 3TS Transportation Section.

“The iATL is not just a collection of traffic devices in a laboratory, but it is embedded in an early deployment of 1,000 connected intersections to test the Day One application in real-world conditions.”

These connected intersections, named the CV-1K+ (connected vehicle 1,000 plus) project, encompass various controller types, protocols, and technologies. In a swath stretching from the Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in the south to the northern suburbs of Atlanta, intersections are communicating via a combination of cellular-vehicle to everything,

4G LTE cellular network, dedicated short-range communication, and unlicensed Wi-Fi. As the iATL is a private sector–funded enterprise, this gives everyone from telecommunications giants to automobile manufacturers to traffic signal controller manufacturers a place to “play in the traffic.”

How Is This Lab Different?

With an endgame in mind that connected vehicles connect to smart city infrastructure, this lab is a stepping stone to connect these devices to cars and emergency vehicles. Car manufacturers can test against not only smart intersections but also school zone safety beacons, electronic crosswalks, rail crossings, weather sensors, and other smart infrastructure that a car may encounter in the wild.

To move forward to this connected vehicle reality, it’s essential to have real-world applications and circumstances. Many labs all over the globe are already in use, from Florida’s SunTrax to Michigan’s American Center for Mobility. These labs, which provide a smart city test center, were a much-needed stepping stone toward autonomous driving. SunTrax, with its unique tolling facilities, is a closed lab, with private drives and roadways.

The difference between those labs and the iATL is the availability of traffic controllers and technologies. Private roads and monoculture traffic controllers will take technologies only so far, which could result in massive gaps in knowledge and applications.

Developing a connected, autonomous vehicle is only as good as the number of situations and communication methods it’s exposed to, even with AI or machine learning. Imagine a connected vehicle that could speak to the traffic lights in Nevada but was useless anywhere else! Traffic lights can send messages about their  signal, phase, and timing, but each controller (Siemens, Econolite, Intelight, TrafficWare, etc.) sends these in a slightly different way and format. Their passthrough communications, likewise, are also encoded and sent differently.

“The iATL is a prime example of Georgia’s leadership in developing critical technology that is so important to our state and national economies while at the same time improving the safety of all of us who use our streets and highways today,” said Georgia Lt. Gov.

Geoff Duncan. “I am particularly pleased that this incredible facility is privately sponsored and enjoys the overwhelming support of the local government and surrounding business community—where the rubber meets the road.”

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there were 37,133 traffic fatalities in the U.S. in 2017. Autonomous vehicles and connected smart city technology could reduce that number up to 94 percent, but first, cars and trucks must be able to talk to local intersections and school zones. The nature of the traffic industry, because of the sheer number of companies and technologies involved, makes for a very fragmented market. Each traffic cabinet could be owned by a state, city, community improvement district, or county. Cabinet access is limited and difficult to obtain, so providing Day One access to over a thousand intersections makes Georgia an attractive place to test modems, controllers, original equipment manufacturers, car manufacturers, and others involved.

Day One Applications

Several hundred of these connected intersections are already being put to use for emergency vehicles, which can automatically preempt and change traffic lights to green as fire trucks or police approach an intersection. Each smart city intersection saves first responders 11 seconds or more per traffic light. Given the dual-band radios installed in each intersection, the emergency vehicles communicate via both short-range radio and cellular, allowing for fail-safe green lights from an unlimited distance. While at the iATL, you may hear  a siren and watch the lights change and lock to let fire trucks through.

Buses, equipped with fleet management devices, are triggering priority calls to the intersections. These priority calls do not immediately change the lights ahead and disrupt traffic, but rather let the smart city infrastructure know the bus is coming and gently  ask for a green light when it gets there. This saves time for the buses, making them work better even in clogged Atlanta traffic, reducing their emissions and conserving fuel since they’re making fewer needless stops.

Citizens can use a smartphone app, available free from the Google Play or Apple App Store, to watch countdown timers and get notifications when lights are turning green. This allows users to sit and test each intersection, watching the countdown timers from the comfort of a smartphone. Vulnerable road users, such as cyclists and pedestrians, can download the app and test collision warnings. This alerts motorists and others if a crash is detected for either car to car, car to walking folk, or car to cyclists. This technology is already being studied in conjunction with Georgia Tech and the University of Florida with eye-tracking and collision alerts to improve the algorithms.

The office space is also an attractive location for training purposes so local city technicians can  get their hands on experimental communications and devices. It’s an essential part of a smart city for the city’s technicians to be able to see, test, and understand these devices. This completes the loop between the private sector, academics, and local governments, and it provides a centralized location to distribute information.

Having a place to bring together a diverse group of traffic control product manufacturers, automakers, roadway operators, and technology developers is an important evolutionary step in deploying connected vehicle technology at scale. It will be interesting to see what the next steps will bring for all. ei

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