April 23, 2024
Car Talk
This busy crosswalk on East Twiggs Street near the Hillsborough County Courthouse has been a frequent site of vehicle-pedestrian collisions. Drivers participating in a connected vehicle pilot program would receive a visual alert in the rearview mirror and hear a warning tone when sensors detected someone crossing the street.

Photo: Mark Wemple

Car Talk
If it were widely adopted across the nation, connected vehicle technology could prevent about 600,000 crashes annually, government studies show.

Photo: iStock

Car Talk

Greg Slater, CEO of the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority, says the safety impacts of connected car technology are "groundbreaking."

Photo: Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority

Connected Vehicle Technology

Car Talk

Florida transportation agencies are equipping roadways with sensors, cameras and other integrated technology that could reduce crashes and improve traffic flow.

Michael Fechter | 3/18/2024

Traffic is cruising along an interstate at highway speed when a sudden, unexpected event forces drivers to slam on the brakes. Some motorists dive onto the shoulder to avoid rear-ending the car ahead of them. There’s a good chance you’ve either seen it happen during an anxious glance in your rearview mirror or done it yourself.

Florida traffic engineers are among the first in the country to test technology in live traffic which they believe can reduce such hazards. Most newer cars have systems to warn drivers when they drift from their lanes or approach stopped vehicles.

Connected vehicle technology aims to augment those systems with data from an emerging network of roadside monitors that are sent to the vehicle.

Tampa was one of three sites in the country, along with New York City and Wyoming, chosen for a U.S. Department of Transportation pilot program that ran from 2015 to 2022.

Roadside units and cameras installed along reversible elevated lanes on the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway — a 15- mile toll road linking South Tampa to downtown Tampa and the eastern suburb of Brandon — and on some downtown Tampa streets gathered information about traffic speed, the length of morning rush hour backups at the main downtown exit ramp and the presence of bicyclists and pedestrians.

Volunteers who agreed to use specially installed rearview mirrors received alerts, and electronic message boards over the highways posted similar warnings for everyone else. Buses, streetcars and city fleets also were part of the $27-million project by the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority.

The results were mixed. There were a lot of false alarms, especially involving pedestrians who simply were near but not entering a crosswalk, and there were initial problems finding clear radio channels to transmit the data

Engineers also replaced light detection and ranging (LIDAR) sensors with infrared cameras after they had difficulty seeing pedestrians at night.

But identifying glitches is one reason for the pilot program. Greg Slater, who became the Expressway Authority’s CEO in 2022 as the initiative neared completion, emphasizes more positive outcomes. The sensors and connected vehicle communications helped prevent 17 vehicle crashes and 21 pedestrian accidents, and 14 wrong-way driver warnings were issued, he says. In March 2020 alone, sensors on the Selmon’s reversible elevated lanes issued 1,200 warnings to 500 drivers that they were not just speeding, but driving faster than the road can safely handle.

No one received a ticket. The hope is that most of those drivers didn’t realize how fast they were traveling and slowed down once alerted. The sensors provide data, Slater acknowledges, but drivers still make the decisions.

“You’re never going to be able to use a technology fix to solve the really aggressive driver, the anomaly,” Slater says. “But the amount of safety impacts that this technology can have is just truly groundbreaking.”

State transportation officials also are at the forefront of using monitors to communicate with vehicles and are working to provide traffic signal priority to everything from emergency vehicles to buses and truckers hauling freight.

Just east of Lakeland, SunTrax, a 475-acre test site with a 2.25-mile track formally opened last June. Companies are using the facility developed by Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise to test autonomous trucks and other vehicles, with one program moving them safely through traffic and construction zones.

Why is all this innovation being tested in Florida?

The state has long invested in transportation, says Trey Tillander, the Florida Department of Transportation’s executive director of transportation technology. “We have a lot of drivers — with 100 million tourists a year and the 20-something million people who live here.” And parts of the state are built out.

“We can only widen so much. We can only add so many lanes,” he says. “When we get to that point, particularly in places like Southeast Florida and some of the urban areas, technology is one of the things that can keep improving mobility for our communities.”

Florida has the country’s third highest population, so it’s logical to see more fatalities than most other states. In 2021, Florida ranked third among states for traffic fatalities, with 3,738 deaths. Among the dead, 44% were pedestrians, motorcyclists or bicyclists. Nearly a third of the accidents involved an impaired driver.

At 3.8 deaths per 100,000 people in 2021, Florida also had the nation’s third-highest per capita pedestrian fatality rate, trailing only New Mexico and Louisiana, the Governors Highway Safety Association reports.

Human error causes 94% of all road accidents, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. For years, automobile and traffic engineers focused on crash survival with innovations such as air bags and crumple zones. While that work continues, there has been “a shift in focus on ways to use technology to prevent crashes from happening in the first place,” a U.S. DOT report last May noted.

The hope is that motorists will react accordingly to warnings about pedestrians present or that they are approaching stopped traffic.

“There’s still the responsibility of the human driver,” Tillander says. “We’re trying to help improve safety and mobility but the technologies have their limitation.”

The technology includes the ability for traffic signal prioritization — altering light cycles in hopes of moving buses, commercial trucks and emergency vehicles more quickly while also helping avoid the kinds of backups that can lead to accidents.

When a roadside unit reports a developing gridlock, the system can extend green light times “and flush that queue,” Slater says. Artificial intelligence ultimately can learn an area’s traffic patterns and factor in special events such as concerts and sporting events to anticipate traffic jams and minimize their severity.

Slater’s team is shifting from the pilot program into an expanding, ongoing connected vehicle program. The sensors from the pilot program remain in place, still sending data to motorists and traffic engineers. His team also is working with FDOT to add more sensors to make Interstate 4 fully connected between Orlando and Tampa. Similar connected segments operate along Interstate 75 between Gainesville and Ocala and along U.S. 41 in Fort Myers.

In February, the Expressway Authority joined with Santa Clara, Calif.-based Commsignia to test a system at two downtown Tampa intersections that can warn bicyclists and motorists of the other’s presence.

Downtown Tampa has changed dramatically since the Selmon’s elevated lanes opened in 2006. Back then it emptied out most evenings. Now, Slater says, “we have an expressway that has ramps feeding into a dense, urban environment.” More people and more cars at all times of day means more hazards and, like Tillander says, there’s no room to build additional lanes, so Slater is betting on a greater information flow for everyone present. There’s even a “vehicle-to-everything” element that can ping cell phones carried by pedestrians and bicyclists.

“You’re still going to have people make poor decisions,” Slater says, “but you want to make it harder for them to make poor decisions because ultimately, we just want to get people home safely.”

The day when all Florida roads and highways are fully connected is still far off, Tillander says, noting that it took the state more than 20 years to build out a system of cameras and information signs on most state highways.

It’s difficult to measure the accidents that do not happen. Florida’s investment in connected vehicle technology isn’t touted as a cure-all, but rather an add-on to help drivers navigate more safely.

“I was taught very early by a really, really senior traffic engineer in this industry that traffic engineering is built on civility,” Slater says. “It’s built on every other person letting each other merge, and so that’s why it fails.”

  • Insurance Impacts

Insurance companies are fully on board with connected vehicle technology and “will incentivize drivers” to use it and autonomous technology when it is available, says Ronald Kammer, a partner at Miami-based Hinshaw Culbertson who represents insurers. He expects hesitancy among some drivers to trust the technology to diminish over time. “When people get more used to that technology, statistics say they are more apt to use it.”

How Connected Vehicle Technology Works

  1. Roadside Units: Mounted on traffic signals or poles, they gather information about traffic speed, line queues and more to broadcast alerts.
  2. Onboard Units: Located in the vehicle, they receive messages and sound warnings from roadside units and other sources.
  3. Advanced Traffic Controller: Using information from roadside units, traffic light signals can be altered to reduce traffic jams and keep buses, cargo and trucks on schedule.
  4. Pedestrian Detector: Cameras and sensors can trigger warnings to fast-moving vehicles as they approach crosswalks.
  5. Mobile Device: Motorists without connected vehicle technology, bicyclists and pedestrians can still be alerted to potential roadway threats.

Sources: Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority, Florida Department of Transportation

2021 Florida Vehicle-related Fatalities

Total: 3,738

National rank per capita: 10

Pedestrian fatalities: 817 (22% of total)

National rank per capita: 3

Motorcycle fatalities: 651 (11% of total)

National rank: 1

Bicycle fatalities: 197 (5% of total)

National rank per capita: 1

Source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, U.S. Department of Transportation

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