The next evolution of driving is coming to Tuscaloosa, Ala.
In a partnership with the Alabama Department of Transportation, the University of Alabama is funding the installation of technology that will, ultimately, pave the way for automated driving.
Bharat Balasubramanian, executive director of The University of Alabama's Center for Advanced Vehicle Technologies and a former head of research and development for the German automotive corporation Daimler AG, said it could be two to four more decades before drivers can relinquish the steering wheel.
But Balasubramanian and his team at Daimler, which owns Mercedes-Benz, ushered in technologies already in use today, such as adaptive cruise control and blind spot assistance during his 34 years with the company.
Those systems, paired with the devices being installed at major intersections across Tuscaloosa and Northport, will one day lead to a whole new driving experience.
"That's when this technology becomes very interesting," said Balasubramanian, 66.
A total of 105 dedicated short-range communication — DSRC — radios are planned for installation at 85 traffic signals throughout Tuscaloosa and Northport. The first 50 units are scheduled to be implemented this fall, UA officials said, making them the first to be installed in the state.
The devices coming from this $400,000 project, funded solely by UA, are not designed to retain or gather any personal information. Rather, they will lead to research and data-gathering opportunities for a number of research centers within the university, including the Center for Advanced Vehicle Technology, the University Transportation Center for Alabama, the Center for Advanced Public Safety and the Alabama Transportation Institute.
Initially, this data will be used for traffic flow and safety purposes. Information gathered by these DSRC radios can dictate traffic signal phases and timing sequences, allowing for easier flow of traffic during peak travel times.
"We expect significant advances in the U.S. transportation system during the next 10 years, made possible through many of the technologies currently being tested in Alabama," Balasubramanian said. "Some of the benefits we will see from these advances are improved safety, optimized traffic flow and better fuel economy."
But when vehicles are able to communicate with these DSRC radios, that's when real-time traffic conditions can be delivered directly to drivers in real time.
And this, Balasubramanian, ultimately will lead to the vehicle driving itself.
Getting there, however, will take a lot more than a few cameras in West Alabama.
Similar DSRC radios, which can communicate wirelessly with receivers without the lag and latency issues that can be seen when attempting to make a cellular phone call, will need to be installed along practically every roadway.
Also, vehicles will need to be equipped with the proper mechanisms to communicate directly with the road-based radios to learn of road hazards, changing conditions and construction blockages, among others.
Even then, it will take convincing Congress to alter traffic safety laws that will allow drivers to legally take their hands off the wheel.
But every evolution has to have a starting point.
"This innovative use of technology is a prime example of how we can use data to improve the lives of people in our community," said Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox. "Not only will it aid in personal convenience, but it could also help keep businesses on schedule and further transportation research."
While UA is funding the system itself, it is in response to a national challenge by American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials to install 20 DSRC radios in every state by 2020.
This means UA will working with local, state and federal government agencies, as well as automotive manufactures, on the studies that are now made possible with the installation of these devices.
"Our goal is to be one of the most advanced transportation systems in the country," said Nick Crane, Transportation Systems Management and Operations Manager for ALDOT's West Central Region, which includes Tuscaloosa County. "With the collaborative culture and resources available, we feel that our goals are achievable."
©2017 The Tuscaloosa News, Ala. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.