Feb 8, 2017

Transport planners in the US are increasingly keen to deploy smart technology on key stretches of highway in order to cut congestion, improve efficiency and reduce the risk of accidents.

The Wall Street Journal reports that authorities in several states have been looking to invest in such technology. In Virginia, for example, authorities have installed smart equipment such as overhead signs that can dynamically change speed limits. This means when bad weather hits a stretch of highway, traffic can be slowed gradually, avoiding problems caused by abrupt braking and swerving.

Elsewhere, Ohio has announced it will spend $15 million to install smart-road technology along 35 miles of Route 33, a state-managed road that goes from outside Columbus to the state’s Transportation Research Center in East Liberty.

Such trials are intended to be the first step towards an environment where self-driving cars are the norm, and can be managed through roads lined with fibre optics, cameras and connected signalling devices that will help vehicles move as quickly and safely as possible.

Planners say the advantages of these smart roads include increasing capacity, by enabling vehicles to travel closer together without risking traffic snarls or accidents. It will also help cut pollution and boost efficiency, as being able to ensure cars can drive at steady speeds, without stops and starts, will reduce fuel consumption.

However, the rollout of this technology is not without its hurdles. Cost is one significant challenge – particularly in the US, where budgets are limited. Planners estimate it could cost hundreds of billions of dollars to equip the country’s four million miles of paved roads and 250,000 intersections with these tools.

Settling on technology standards for communications between cars and highways will be another challenge. Utah transportation systems program director Blaine Leonard told the journal the industry is currently facing a “chicken-and-egg problem”, as at present, the necessary communications systems are not in place.

“Cars right now don’t have anything on them to talk to. Most of the installations [on roads] are for research purposes,” Mr Leonard said.

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