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Connected Vehicle Technologies Expand to Austin, Texas

What if cars talked to traffic lights? Five busy intersections in Austin, Texas, have been outfitted with devices to enable connected vehicle communications. The city plans on installing two more in 2019.

Connected vehicle technologies are joining the transportation system in Texas' capital city to improve safety and communication with drivers.

Five intersections in Austin have been upgraded with dedicated short-range communication (DSRC) technology. The city will launch two more similar projects next year. The projects are part of Austin’s participation in the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Signal Phasing and Timing (SPaT) Challenge through the National Operations Center of Excellence, a partnership among transportation-related associations and government agencies to offer assistance with transportation technologies.

“This technology will allow connected vehicles to communicate in real time with the traffic signal controller,” explained Marissa Monroy, public information and marketing manager for the Austin Transportation Department. “The DSRC devices are able to broadcast industry standard basic safety messages in the immediate vicinity of the intersection to surrounding vehicles equipped with onboard units.”

Some of these safety messages include the vehicle’s position, the braking system’s status and traffic signal information.

“This type of information will help future connected traffic signals and equipped vehicles to communicate about pedestrian or bicyclist presence in the intersection, improve vehicle performance, and provide engineers with traffic data that can be used to improve safety and operations,” she added via email.

The technology, which was funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation, was supplied by Battelle, a private nonprofit applied research and technology center based in Columbus, Ohio. The project is part of the federal Connected Vehicle Reference Implementation Architecture project, commonly known as the V2I (vehicle-to-infrastructure) Hub.

The five intersections to receive the DSRC upgrades were selected based on their proximity to the Austin urban core, as well as “some of the more interesting and challenging intersections,” said Monroy. These are areas with high traffic volumes and areas with oddly shaped intersections.

The basic safety messages indicate vehicle position, motion, brake system status and size, and provide vehicles with SPaT information — the traffic signal controller light indications and duration of those indications.

Other cities and regions have also been experimenting with connected vehicle technologies. In June, the Colorado Department of Transportation announced a partnership with Panasonic Corp. of North America to begin installing a network of roughly 100 roadside units along I-70 between Golden and Vail, a stretch of about 90 miles. The devices can communicate with the state’s Traffic Management Center, as well as connected vehicles.

The system will enable a “vehicle-to-everything” — known as V2X — environment where cars can share billions of data points an hour related to speed and other operations, which are fed into the system to generate alerts and other information.

About the same time, transportation officials in Columbus, Ohio, announced the launch of its “Connected Vehicle Environment,” also a network of roadside devices which can interface with in-vehicle technology to collect data to be used by 12 applications, such as traffic signal priority for transit vehicles, speed reduction alerts in school zones and red-light violation warnings.

In the next three to five years, it’s expected that a number of automakers, including General Motors, Ford, Toyota and Volkswagen, will include connected vehicle technology on some or all of their cars.

Austin is also involved in other traffic data-sharing projects, such as its partnership with the University of Texas at Austin to use video analytics to study traffic load and road usage. The project uses existing video streams from traffic cameras to track and monitor certain usages like cyclists or pedestrians, with an aim to design and plan streets that are safer and friendlier for all users.

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.