The greatest benefit that self-driving cars could bring to humanity would be a reduction in traffic deaths. Policymakers, car company executives, and safety advocates look forward to the day when self-driving cars can dramatically reduce or eliminate the 3,400 deaths that occur every day because of traffic accidents.
But self-driving cars are only just starting to make their way onto public roads in the sunniest of U.S. suburbs. At this early stage, autonomous vehicles are still steering clear of hazards such as snow and ice that often cause human drivers to wreck.
This means self-driving cars won’t be able to save us from the most challenging driving conditions any time soon. But the state of Wyoming is moving forward with a pilot project that will use other technologies to improve the way humans drive, in an effort to reduce traffic deaths along a particularly deadly stretch of road.
Ali Ragan, a communications officer for the Wyoming Department of Transportation (WYDOT), spoke with IEEE Spectrum about the project at the 2018 South by Southwest Interactive conference in Austin, Texas.
The highway in question is Interstate 80 (I-80), which runs across southern Wyoming. It’s a major corridor for semi trucks hauling freight between the Midwest and the West Coast. In fact, semis make up 30 to 40 percent of the 11,000 to 16,000 vehicles that travel on I-80 each day, and up to 70 percent of that traffic during winter months.
But I-80, which sits nearly 2 kilometers (6,000 feet) above sea level, is often covered in snow and ice in winter. Strong winds blow snow across the road, causing low visibility. (“Wyoming’s very windy. It’s very, very windy,” Ragan says.) Every year, there are 1,500 traffic accidents on the interstate.
In fact, semi trucks driving in wintery conditions on I-80 have been known to drive straight into massive pile-ups involving dozens of vehicles. In 2015, two such pile-ups occurred in just one week. Seventy vehicles collided in the first pile-up, and 59 vehicles crashed in the second.
In addition to the preventable injuries and deaths that result from these horrific pile-ups, these accidents also take a long time to clean up, which means other motorists must find a different route to travel in the meantime. For all of these reasons, Wyoming’s Department of Transportation would like to find a way to use technology to reduce the number of crashes on I-80. “There’s a very specific problem we’re trying to solve,” says Ragan.
Back in 2015, the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) selected Wyoming to participate in a new connected vehicle pilot to see whether installing dedicated short-range communications (DSRC) radios in vehicles and infrastructure along I-80 could improve safety. DSRC radios can broadcast messages in the 5.9 Gigahertz band at a range of up to 300 meters (nearly 1,000 feet).
Since it was awarded funds in 2015, Wyoming has spent the past few years planning the project, and has finally started to install its new equipment. The state expects to begin the pilot by the end of 2018.
So far, WYDOT has mounted 50 DSRC radios manufactured by Lear Corporation to signposts and other infrastructure along I-80. It plans to add 25 more transceivers in the coming months, for a grand total of 75. “What we’ve done is a hotspot analysis to determine where the areas are where we see the most problems—crashes or bad weather,” says Ragan. “[The aim is to] have DSRC radios leading into those areas.”
Existing weather stations will collect data and share it with WYDOT’s Transportation Management Center in Cheyenne, where operators can then relay it to the roadside DSRC radios.
But what good are the roadside radios if they have nothing to talk to. With that in mind, WYDOT is also giving trucking companies and truck drivers DSRC radios made by Lear and SiriusXM to install in their vehicles, along with tablets that go in the cab to alert drivers to changing road conditions or accidents ahead.
WYDOT is now recruiting 300 private truck drivers who drive on I-80 at least three days a week for the project. The agency has already signed up several partners including Double D Distribution, Dooley Oil Company, and UPS.
“People are pretty willing to work with us because there’s not really a trucking company that travels through Wyoming that doesn’t understand where the problems are,” Ragan says. WYDOT also recently added DSRC radios to its own snowplows, which Wyoming drivers manage to hit several times a year.
The partnership with SiriusXM is important, says Ragan, because many areas along I-80 have weak or nonexistent cell service. The DSRC radios can use SiriusXM’s satellite connection to reliably receive alerts from the WYDOT’s Transportation Management Center from anywhere in the state, and broadcast on the 5.9-Gigahertz band in order to send data between vehicles or between a vehicle and a roadside radio.
Once installed, the radios should be able to warn a driver if they’re about to hit another DSRC-equipped truck in front of them, or alert them to an icy patch or foggy conditions on the road ahead. And every time a driver passes by a roadside DSRC transceiver, their radio will upload data about the conditions the truck experienced on the last stretch of road and download updated information about the part they’re heading into. As a truck drives, the onboard tablet will relay that data to the driver on a need-to-know basis, only as he or she starts to get close to problem areas.
Another feature that will be available through this system is a distress signal, which a driver can initiate by pushing a button. That distress signal would go out to nearby trucks, whose DSRC radios would alert the drivers and then retransmit the signal down the line until it reached a roadside transceiver and was relayed back to the Transportation Management Center.
In addition to Wyoming’s upcoming pilot, other USDOT-funded pilots are taking place in New York City and Tampa, Florida. Altogether, the USDOT awarded US $45 million to those three projects. The system that Wyoming is using was previously tested in Ann Arbor, Mich., but Wyoming’s pilot will be the first time it’s deployed in commercial vehicles.
Elsewhere, Colorado and Utah are conducting their own connected vehicle pilots for passenger cars and city buses, respectively, with state funding. Depending on how each of these pilots works out, DSRC could prove to be the far more important new safety tech for vehicles—long before self-driving cars roll up.
Editor’s note: This story was updated on 15 March to clarify that trucks receive alerts through the SiriusXM satellite connection, and transmit on the 5.9-Gigahertz band.