Virginia Tech Magazine

Volume 14, Number 1
Fall 1991


Savvy new technologies improve driving safety and efficiency

by Sookhan Ho

You're on Interstate 81 on ... a dark and stormy night. You aren't aware that, several yards ahead, a large rock has fallen onto the middle of the lane—but your car is. Thanks to its "all-weather/night vision" radar system, it senses the threatening obstacle and emits several urgent beeps. The words, "Obstacle Ahead," flash on your windshield. Moving into the left lane, you drive warily past the rock.

Miles later, another alarm sounds—"Slippery Road." Detecting a dangerously slick stretch ahead, electronic sensors embedded in the pavement have relayed the information via radio waves to a central computer which dispatched the warning to you and other drivers.

This seems like some highway engineer's fantasy now, but such driver-aiding technologies will be field tested in Southwest Virginia if a proposed $110-million project gets under way.

Collectively known as "intelligent vehicle/highway systems," or IVHS, the new technologies are all about improving communications among vehicle, highway, and driver by using sophisticated computers, electronics, and satellites.

"The goal is to make driving safer, more energy-efficient, and more environmentally responsible," says

Antoine Hobeika, professor of civil engineering and director of Virginia Tech's Center for Transportation Research. The center, together with the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), is spearheading IVHS research in Virginia.

By improving traffic flow, IVHS technologies cut down on fuel consumption, air pollution, and highway accidents, Hobeika says. IVHS systems can help prevent many accidents that are accepted now as routine, he says—not only by enhancing vision at night or during bad weather, but also by warning drivers when they start to wander off course or when other vehicles are in their blind spots.

Someday, Hobeika says, platoons of autopiloted cars and trucks will zip along highways, guided by on-board and in-road sensors that maintain safe distances between vehicles and keep them from drifting sideways. Vehicles will automatically adjust their speed and positions relative to others for safe braking, passing, or lane changing. These advanced IVHS systems, however, are 10 to 20 years down the road (so to speak).

Meanwhile, IVHS technologies already in use include heads-up display, or HUD. Standard equipment on jet fighter planes, HUD has been, for several years, projecting images of the speedometer, fuel and temperature gauges, and other controls onto the windshields of some General Motors cars.

GM and Ford are testing computerized navigational devices to pinpoint a driver's location, "near-obstacle detection systems" that activate warnings to steer clear of objects in blind spots, and collision-avoidance systems that warn the driver or automatically steer, brake, or accelerate the vehicle.

In Northern Virginia, on Interstates 95 and 66, transportation authorities are using video cameras and "loop detectors" to monitor traffic flow and speed and identify bottlenecks. The loop detectors, implanted in the road at half-mile intervals, send information to a control center which relays it to drivers via changeable roadside message signs. VDOT also is testing pavement sensors to monitor the road surface temperature, an automated vehicle identification and billing system to eliminate stopping at toll booths, and an advisory radio for travelers.

Outside Virginia, IVHS projects are being implemented in such places as Minnesota (GUIDESTAR), Los Angeles (Pathfinder), Orlando (Travtek), and Chicago (ADVANCE). Other projects have been started in Detroit, Anaheim, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Seattle to alleviate urban congestion. The project in Southwest Virginia, however, would be unique in its emphasis on safety on intercity highways. And, it would include the first "smart" road to be built from the ground up.

"Intercity roads are the primary routes used by truck traffic," says Hobeika. "They're where an unusually high proportion of accidents happen. More than half of the fatal accidents in the nation occur on highways—where collision speeds are likely to be high."

The project area, dubbed the "IVHS Triangle" by VDOT commissioner Ray Pethtel, would consist of parts of I-81 and U.S. Route 460, and a new, six-mile, four-lane "smart" road to connect Blacksburg directly with I-81 in Montgomery County.

The "IVHS Triangle" has several advantages, Pethtel noted at Virginia Tech last spring. Route 460 offers an opportunity to test IVHS solutions for urban congestion, while I-81 provides a heavily-traveled corridor for testing commercial vehicle technologies. The proximity of Virginia Tech, with its range of research expertise, is another plus. "It's a comprehensive testing site," Pethtel said.

The project would field test changeable message signs, on-board information systems for truck drivers, fiber optic sensors, an all-weather/night vision system, and satellite, radio, and microwave technology. The all-weather/night vision system would be tested on the six-mile link. Ford Motor Co., for example, has developed a radar-based system that can detect objects as far as 650 yards ahead. It can discern object size and, with the addition of software, sense differences among objects, says Dick Place, director for technical planning at Ford.

The Southwest Virginia project's lead participants—Virginia Tech and VDOT—are seeking funds from federal, state, and local governments and private industry. "The U.S. is already lagging behind Japan and several European countries, which have invested some $2 billion in IVHS research and development. These nations have recognized the importance of IVHS to their transportation systems, electronic and auto industries, and overall economic efficiency," he says. Proponents of the project in Southwest Virginia argue that it would bring economic benefits to the region by providing better access to Virginia Tech and by serving as a test bed for IVHS technologies.

"Access to a major research university has become a major criterion for attracting industry," says Congressman Rick Boucher of Virginia's 9th District. "The traditional economic base is changing to technology-driven companies."

IVHS technology may be full of promise, but it is not without problems. Mounir Kamal, executive director of GM Research Lab, points out some difficulties. "Some technologies cost hundreds or thousands of dollars per vehicle. That's just too much."

Ford's Dick Place adds: "Industry is driven by customer wants—and abstract, long-term social benefits don't motivate many buyers." Short-term benefits aside, the auto industry is also concerned about product liability, customer acceptance, financing, and the need to work with competitors to develop compatible technologies.

"Human factors" issues—how drivers interact with the new technologies—would have to be tackled. Unlike airline pilots, drivers don't have time to watch their instruments. They have to be given only the information they need, only when they need it, Kamal says.

Clearly, many issues need to be addressed in the research, development, and testing of IVHS technology. Virginia Tech may have a unique role to play.

Sookhan Ho is a public information officer in the College of Engineering.
Smart Driving on I-81

The I-81 portion of the proposed test corridor, traversing mountainous terrain with long, steep grades and sharp curves, is known for both its high volume of truck traffic and bad weather conditions. From 1987-89, this corridor saw 844 accidents involving more than 1,300 vehicles, according to VDOT statistics. More than 30 percent of the accidents involved trucks. Accidents were largely attributed to three factors—bad weather, roadway geography, and the unfamiliarity of drivers with the road.

More than half of the accidents occurred during foggy, rainy, icy, and snowy conditions. Seventy percent of truck accidents—including 18 rollovers—took place on curves or slopes. Virginia Tech Center for Transportation Research director Hobeika points out that data on truck accidents show that out-of-state drivers had more accidents here than did drivers with Virginia licenses. "Our proposed project will look at the impact of IVHS technology on these leading causes of accidents."

Virginia Tech Magazine Volume 14, Number 1 Fall 1991