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Tampa Launches Major Test of Connected Vehicle Technology

The 18-month pilot involves more than 1,000 vehicles and will attempt to collected more accurate transportation data that could help drivers and the city's transit service.

A connected vehicle pilot is underway in Tampa, Fla., setting up a network of more than 1,000 cars and transit vehicles. The project's goal is to better inform drivers about highway conditions, improve the schedule timing of buses and collect sufficient data to lead to safer and more efficient transportation.

The Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority (THEA) pilot places connected vehicle technology in participating personal cars, allowing them to communicate with traffic signals and other infrastructure known as “roadside units” placed across downtown and at the entry and exit ramps of the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway, a 14-mile toll road, as well as other areas.

The study, which will run for the next 18 months, will explore how the connected vehicle technology can lead to “a safer, more efficient transportation system,” said Bob Frey, planning director at THEA, the lead agency on the project.

“We need the data to show that it works,” he added. “The bottom line is we’ve got 100 years of physical geometrical improvements that do work. And if we’re going to use technology to solve some of these problems in the future, we’re going to have to have that data to show that it’s working.”

Better transportation data could inform decisions around road widening and other infrastructure improvements. 

“So, you need data, and this is hopefully one of those projects that will start to generate real data to show that A.) it works, or B.) it doesn’t, which is just as important,” said Frey. 

So far, about 1,000 personal vehicles have been outfitted with the connected vehicle technology, with plans to increase that number to about 1,200, said Frey. The technology is also installed on 10 buses and 10 streetcars.

"On the infrastructure side, the project includes 46 roadside units installed throughout downtown Tampa,"  explained Jeff Brown, a senior consultant and content developer with Global-5, a public relations company specializing in transportation. "These units enable the vehicles to communicate with traffic signals, a pedestrian crosswalk, a reversible entry-exit ramp on the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway, and more." 

Since the project was first announced more than a year ago, some 4,000 to 5,000 personal car owners expressed interest in participating, driven in part, by toll road rebates for participants. 

“The big carrots we used for people to come in was the toll discount. And so we know that these 1,200 people are using the Selman Expressway coming into downtown, which is right into our study area,” said Frey. 

“These people use this road five days a week, twice a day. So, we know we’ll get a high level of frequency, even if we don’t have a high level of installs,” he added.

Some would-be participants had to be eliminated for technical reasons. The pilot calls for replacing the cars’ rearview mirrors with mirrors that provide readings to drivers related to speed, upcoming signals, pedestrians in the area, and other pieces of data. And since many late model cars already include a mirror that displays various bits of driver data, the agency opted to not remove these mirrors and replace them with the after-market versions.

“These new cars coming out already have technology in the mirrors, so we decided to not replace those because they have safety features and such built in,” Frey explained. “Our problem really was — and it’s probably more of a pilot problem than an industry problem — in finding vehicles that met the requirements of allowing us to change the mirror out.”

The pilot is being led by the U.S. Department of Transportation, and once its 18-month run is up, THEA will continue to operate the data streams, said Frey. “We will continue to operate it, and we will continue to look for ways to grow it, in terms of maybe fleet vehicles or applications for emergency vehicles,” he added. 

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.