Imagine a future where traffic runs smoothly, crashes are rare and commute times slashed. That future is just around the corner.
Florida, along with a handful of other states, is at the forefront of a national effort to create a system that allows vehicles to wirelessly communicate with each other and the streets and roads around them.
"It can actually really change transportation," said George Gilhooley, vice president of HNTB Corporation, a transportation consulting firm. "The real key driver behind it all is safety. It can save lives, prevent injuries."
Picture everything vehicles do -- how fast they're going, whether windshield wipers are on, if brakes are suddenly engaged -- sent to a traffic command center that predicts and prevents traffic slowdowns based on that information.
This futuristic command center can relay information to vehicles -- such as encouraging them to slow down to avoid a bottleneck or crash ahead. Motorists can be warned that a traffic light is about to change or that they're coming to a dangerous curve in the road.
Such a system takes much of the decision-making out of the hands of motorists and into the control of computers.
It comes as advanced technology has become more affordable and expanding highways and roads more expensive or impractical. The increasing option for transportation officials is to turn to technology.
"You don't have [the land]," said Mohammed Hamid, a transportation researcher at Florida International University. "When you build bigger highways, there's no guarantee it will solve congestion problems ... [Technology] gives back much more."
Advanced technology has transportation researchers envisioning:
-- Providing motorists information on how long they'll be stuck in traffic after a crash.
-- Using variable speed limits in express toll lanes.
-- Opening up shoulders to traffic using advanced sensors, cameras and variable speed limits.
-- Setting up predetermined detour routes when traffic is diverted off highways and equipping those routes with extra cameras, sensors, electronic message signs and automatic detour timing plans for traffic signals.
Such options seem possible as a wave of advances hit local roads in Broward and Palm Beach counties. The Florida Department of Transportation is deploying vehicle detection sensors that measure speed, travel times and volume of traffic. More traffic cameras are coming with those sensors, along with electronic message signs.
"Ten years ago it was managing incidents on the freeway; now it's actively managing the arterial traffic," said Mark Plass, FDOT traffic operations engineer.
That's a big deal, Gilhooley said. Controlling congestion on local roads is the most difficult to handle because of the stop-and-go traffic and busy intersections with vehicles going in multiple directions.
"That's doing the best you can without bringing the vehicle and highway together in real time," he said of the new management systems in Broward and Palm Beach counties.
So far, the advanced transportation management systems have been tested on Southern, Okeechobee and Belvedere boulevards in Palm Beach County.
That technology will allow traffic managers to act quickly when traffic slows down because of congestion or crashes by retiming traffic signals. Eventually, they will be able to predict traffic jams and work to prevent them.
Seperately, transportation agenices are rolling out new traffic control systems that synchronize traffic signals in real time. Called adaptive traffic control, computers adjust the timing based on how traffic is flowing.
The real-time synchronized system was installed this summer on Glades Road in Boca Raton. In 2014, Palm Beach County will try out the system on Okeechobee Boulevard in downtown West Palm Beach and Northlake Boulevard between Interstate 95 and Alternate State Road A1A.
Interest in much of this advanced technology come as they become more affordable, making it possible to buy "off the shelf" as opposed to creating a tailor-made system such as the one used by Los Angeles to synchronize all of its traffic signals.
"There're more tools available and they're getting cheaper," said Dan Weisberg, Palm Beach County's traffic engineer.
The affordability of the technology comes at the right time. South Florida is reaching the point where some of its highways and roads can't get any wider, Weisberg said. In many cases, residents resist monstrous roads, and government entities can't afford the land to build them.
All this deployment of new technology offers numerous opportunities. Consider it transportation's version of data mining.
"As more sensors are invested in the infrastructure, we will get access to more data," said Mohammed Hamid, a transportation researcher at Florida International University. "You can do all kinds of data mining and see what's causing what and come up with solutions and strategies."
The key to harnessing the technology is sharing all the information collected by different transportation agencies so an entire transportation network -- including roads, highways, buses, trains and trucks -- can be actively managed in real time. FDOT is working with researchers now to develop such a system.
In concept, information about traffic jams or major accidents can be picked up by Broward County Transit, allowing it to re-route affected buses and letting its passengers know about delays and where buses are going.
The transit system is in the midst of getting a vehicle locater system that, among other things, will allow passengers to know in real time using a smartphone application when buses are arriving. So any disruption in service or re-routing can be relayed to customers.
Technology also is helping buses get through congested roads. Next summer, FDOT will test a bus-only traffic signal at State Road 7 and Prospect Road in North Lauderdale also in Broward County that will allow buses to jump ahead of the other lines of vehicles waiting at a traffic signal.
Palm Beach will provide priority to buses on U.S. 441 and Okeechobee Boulevard between Wellington and West Palm Beach in 2015.
"For people taking the bus they want to know it's reliable," said Marjorie Hilaire, multimodal project coordinator for FDOT. "This technology really helps with that. If it minimizes those delays you get at certain intersections, it keeps buses on schedule."
(c) 2013 the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)