Smart roads coming to Utah could, eventually, decrease traffic

(Devon Dewey, KSL.com, File)



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LAS VEGAS — Doesn’t traffic just kind of ruin your day? Especially when it’s unexpected and makes you late?

But what if you knew about congestion long before you hit it on the road? What if it decreased significantly?

A new technology could soon make that a reality in Utah.

Most newer vehicles on the road today are connected to the internet via a cell chip in the car, which shares data with the auto manufacturer. But a new technology called V2X or “vehicle to everything” uses a localized radio to anonymously and securely transmit data about the car and what it’s doing.

The data allows traffic operators to quickly learn of crashes, bad weather or stalled cars, then share that information with drivers of connected vehicles and suggest alternate routes, delay times or other pertinent information.

The Utah Department of Transportation has been using this technology in select parts of Utah for the past few years to improve congestion, increase safety and monitor infrastructure issues.

In fact, Utah built the first connected vehicle corridor in the nation along Redwood Road in Salt Lake, then another along University Parkway and University Avenue in Utah County.

Radios embedded in buses on these routes communicate with sensors along the roads. If a bus is running late, the system can extend a green light to help it get back on schedule without forcing the bus driver to do anything outside their normal duties. When snowplows clear the roads, the system makes sure they have green lights the whole way so they operate more efficiently.

Now, UDOT is partnering with Panasonic to take this to another level, UDOT executive director Carlos Braceras said Monday at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. A branch of Panasonic, called CIRRUS, will give UDOT access to a management system that will allow it to collect, analyze and share more data.

“(UDOT has) all these great applications out there. ... (But) those are kind of edge applications. We’re now helping them build a central platform to manage all that, plus now even more,” said Chris Armstrong, vice president at CIRRUS.

The $50 million, five-year Panasonic partnership will help UDOT install sensors along other portions of Utah highways, including the I-80 corridor and Big Cottonwood Canyon, Armstrong said.

Those sensors will communicate with state-owned, connected vehicles, and the CIRRUS system will help send alerts to drivers of those vehicles if there's congestion or other issues. It not only helps UDOT manage traffic, but also helps the state know where to build better infrastructure.

“The CIRRUS platform, itself, is the central data platform to manage all that. So it ingests all the data; it finds the insights; it has the applications that make recommendations about how to send out alerts, where to reroute traffic, different things like that,” Armstrong said.

“But the part we’re really excited about is, we’re trying to make this an open platform, an open marketplace, so not just Panasonic can build apps and use cases, but we can get researchers involved, and universities and startups,” he added.

During the first phase of the project (which is now six months underway), UDOT and Panasonic will install sensors at 40 locations and connect a fleet of 30 state-owned cars. By the end of the project, the system will include 220 installation sites and 2,000 vehicles.

By May, UDOT should be ready to bring people into its traffic operations center and show off the system, Armstrong said. When asked about privacy concerns, Armstrong explained that the transmitted data has had all personally identifiable information removed.

The V2X data should eventually decrease traffic, help the state preemptively identify infrastructure to improve, and even have an environmental impact by ensuring that cars aren’t idling in traffic.

So far, however, the tech only involves state-owned cars, and Armstrong predicts it’ll still be a “few more years” before the majority of cars are equipped with this kind of tech. But more internet-connected and self-driving cars are coming off the lot.

“Our population is just exploding right now; and with more vehicles on the road, safety becomes an ever-increasing concern with us,” Braceras said. “This really allows us to accelerate our statewide system to prepare us for the future smart vehicles that are coming fast.”

Panasonic chose to partner with Utah because “they’re very forward-leaning,” Armstrong said.

“(Utah’s) also not a giant place, right? This isn’t L.A. or Chicago or New York. We’re not trying to solve the world’s hardest problem first, right? But there are challenges there, and we have an amazing, open-minded partner that can help us build something that doesn’t exist yet.”

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