Look Ma, no hands! People in passing cars may do a double-take upon seeing no one at the wheel, but the driver is ready to take over at a moment’s notice. In a Colorado DOT demonstration project, the self-driving truck transported a load of Budweiser beer along the 120-mile stretch of Interstate 5 from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs.
Aether Films Look Ma, no hands! People in passing cars may do a double-take upon seeing no one at the wheel, but the driver is ready to take over at a moment’s notice. In a Colorado DOT demonstration project, the self-driving truck transported a load of Budweiser beer along the 120-mile stretch of Interstate 5 from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs.

In 2016, the Colorado DOT (CoDOT) allocated $20 million of its $1.4 billion budget to kick-start RoadX Accelerating Technology. The program aims to improve safety and combat congestion by deploying connected infrastructure technologies.

“We’re carving out a small amount of money from the existing budget,” says RoadX Director Peter Kozinski. The concept is that redirecting already available resources is a straightforward way to integrate new technology into the planning routine. Once new systems are operating, today’s small investment is expected to offset large capital costs in the future.

For example, a $7 million project will use advanced ramp metering on Interstate 25 to improve traffic flow without physically expanding the road. The more traditional approach to increasing capacity, adding a lane, would cost around $700 million.

“That’s a very good return on investment,” Kozinski says.

Building on existing ramp metering and traveler information systems, detection loops will be installed on the road and ramps to obtain highly accurate speed and density readings. The data will be fed into computer algorithms that will monitor all ramps and release vehicles onto I-25 based on travel speeds at different locations. If the algorithm senses travel time is worsening at one location, it will adjust all meters accordingly. The meters may hold cars up to 20 seconds instead of the existing meters’ timing.

CoDOT received a $1 million grant from the Federal Highway Administration for this project, which is modeled on a program in Australia where advanced ramp metering helped increase traffic speeds 35% to 60% during peak times.

Partnering with the private sector: a win/win

To leverage RoadX budget dollars, CoDOT has established partnerships with commercial enterprises to help set up the necessary infrastructure connectivity and implement pilot projects.

“Partners have money to be made by showing their concepts are ready for prime time,” says Kozinski. “And our partners help us defer costs, so it benefits everyone.”

Panasonic, which specializes in smart infrastructure technology, and HERE, which provides mapping and real-time transportation data, will provide communications networks and cloud-based analytics. An integrated traffic management center will capture and distribute cellular, radio, and road sensor data about road conditions and traffic patterns.

Panasonic uses dedicated short-range communication (DSRC); HERE uses a 4G LTE cellular network. “Both mechanisms are used in vehicles,” says Kozinski. “We’re not picking a winner; we’re trying to make sure they talk to each other.”

CoDOT will deploy the system on Interstate 70 from Golden to Vail, where high altitude, extreme weather, and congestion complicate driving. Vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) communications will give motorists real-time safety warnings on low visibility, icy roads, multi-vehicle pileups, runaway trucks, and avalanches.

This pilot will equip 700 CoDOT, first responder, ski shuttle, and commercial vehicles on I-70 with on-board units and install DSRC devices along the roadside.

In other partnerships:

  • Otto, the self-driving truck subsidiary of Uber, is helping study how autonomous vehicles affect the safety and environmental impacts of highway freight. In October 2016, a truck transported a load of beer along the 120-mile stretch of Interstate 5 from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs at an average speed of 55 mph. The driver monitored operations from the sleeper berth and jumped in as needed to navigate ramps and city streets.
  • National Renewable Energy Laboratory is helping to develop a map of proposed electric vehicle charging stations. This guidance will provide a framework for planning, budgeting, and delivering the charging stations.
  • Public agency partners include the City and County of Denver, the Colorado Energy Office, and the Colorado State Patrol.

Taking the next step

Kozinski’s advice to traffic managers and road designers grappling with implement these technologies: “The five-to-seven-year transportation planning cycle goes by quickly. Think about the solution now and by the time you get the projects on the road, the technology will be there.”

Also, historic and predictive traffic flow data that will be generated can help pinpoint where investments must be made in road planning, safety, and even optimizing winter maintenance.

Inside CoDOT, no restructuring was involved besides dedicating Kozinski’s time to the effort. Describing himself as “a one-person shop,” he says the move had little impact on the agency’s 3,000 employees.

CoDOT hopes the initiative will also help accelerate programs in other states. “Concepts and technologies need to be interoperable among regions,” says Kozinski. “It’s not ‘my system versus yours.’ We want to share successes and failures as quickly as possible to understand how we can make it better for everyone.”