'Smart Road' Takes High Tech Step Toward Traffic Solutions
By John Nagy, Staff Writer
In the shadow of Virginia Tech University in the southwestern part of the Old Dominion, a new sensor-studded stretch of blacktop is being developed that could transform how future highways and motor vehicles are built. It's Virginia's "Smart Road" -- a $33 million project that will eventually serve as a combined highway laboratory and public connector road.
One of several elements in the state's cutting-edge intelligent transportation system (ITS) program, the Smart Road incorporates the use of sophisticated computing, communications and sensing devices in the first "road built from the ground up in the United States that is a real-life test laboratory," Virginia Department of Transportation spokeswoman Laura Bullock says.
The revolutionary ribbon of asphalt, which opened March 23, features 75 precipitation towers that can produce everything from mist to heavy rain or snow ranging from flurries to a full blizzard. Three types of overhead lamps sit atop height-adjustable poles to allow experiments with lighting and fluorescent signs and road markings. Underneath the road surface lies a complex grid of fiber-optic sensors that will measure road impact and durability, moisture penetration and traffic.
Researchers hope the one-of-a-kind highway lab will help engineers develop safer motor vehicles and solve the kind of severe road congestion that has portions of Virginia tied up in perpetually tight traffic knots.
Some 130 different government and private industry experiments have already begun on the Smart Road, and Ray Pethtel, assistant director of Virginia Tech's Transportation Institute, says results noticeable to the everyday motorist may come soon.
One product under development is a magnetic tape made by 3M Corporation. Used along with a device inside a vehicle, it could inform a driver of unintentional drifting, an innovation that researchers say could prevent traffic accidents and chip away at congestion.
"Much of the congestion that we have in the United States is non-recurring congestion caused by accidents. The majority of those involve some kind of driver error. So if these techniques and technologies can assist the driver in becoming more aware of the driving tasks ... it will reduce the number of incidents and improve throughput and reduce congestion," Pethtel says.
To date, most of the Smart Road's funding has come from the state, with considerable federal grant support channeled through the Federal Highway Administration. Project managers hope that much of the remaining construction will be financed by revenues from private sector research.
Bypass lanes will eventually enable the road to function as both laboratory and public thoroughfare connecting Virginia Tech in Blacksburg with Interstate 81 5.7 miles away.
Virginia officials say the Smart Road will put the state way ahead of the rest of the country in developing better transportation. Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore is a leading proponent of high tech solutions to the traffic problems which are so much a part of modern life in the United States.
Virginia is "one of the leading states ... in terms of identifying the importance of working hard to take advantage of the benefits of intelligent transportation systems and technologies. They're quite good at it." says American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials deputy executive director David J. Hensing.