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Tampa Bay, Fla., Seeks Toll-Road Drivers to Volunteer for Its Connected Vehicle Study

The city is looking for 1,600 private vehicle volunteers for pilot program to measure safety features along the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway.

Tampa Bay commuters now have a chance to lower their toll-road payments, while also receiving important highway driving warnings — right to their rear-view mirror.

The central Florida city is participating in a U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) research program, known as the Tampa Connected Vehicle Pilot. The pilot aims to demonstrate the safety, mobility and environmental benefits of “connected vehicle” technology. To do this, some 1,600 private vehicles will be equipped with devices that will consider speed, braking distance and other driving data to determine, for example, when a motorist should brake when coming to the end of a freeway off-ramp, given the car’s speed and number of cars ahead.

To encourage participation in the pilot program, which runs through December 2019, the Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority (THEA) will offer drivers a 30 percent toll rebate, up to a maximum of $550, on the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway Reversible Express Lanes (REL).

“So we’re actually asking participants to volunteer to take part,” said Bob Frey, planning director at Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority.

Tampa Bay is one of three similar pilots selected to study connected vehicle technology by the DOT, which has awarded a total of $42 million to the three pilot programs. The other two are:

In Wyoming, 400 tractor-trailer rigs traveling a 400-mile stretch of Interstate 80 will be outfitted with devices that allow the trucks to both communicate with each other and with roadside communication infrastructure. The aim is to improve the reporting and monitoring of road conditions along this often snowy and icy corridor.

In New York, the pilot will focus on three areas: a 4-mile segment of Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) Drive in the Upper East Side and East Harlem neighborhoods of Manhattan, four one-way corridors in Manhattan, and a third area covering a 1.6-mile segment of Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn.

Approximately 5,800 cabs, 1,250 Metropolitan Transportation Authority buses, 400 commercial fleet delivery trucks and 500 city vehicles that frequent these areas will be fitted with the connected-vehicle technology. Using “Dedicated Short Range Communication” (DSRC), the deployment will include approximately 310 signalized intersections for vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) technology.

“The [connected-vehicle] technology is a new tool to help NYC reach its Vision Zero goals to eliminate traffic-related deaths and reduce crash-related injuries and damage to both the vehicles and infrastructure,” said Wesam Daraghmeh, a spokesman for the New York City Department of Transportation. 

“This is a three-phase, 50-month program. We are on the second [phase] now,” said Daraghmeh. Some devices were installed in our fleet for testing purposes.”

Back in Tampa, it’s not just private vehicles outfitted with the connected-vehicle technology; 10 city buses and 10 TECO Line streetcars will also don the tech.

Pedestrians will be able to participate in the pilot by installing an app on their smartphones. The app, which is expected to be available for download in February 2018, will enable pedestrians to request a “walk” signal at several intersections on Meridian Avenue. On some downtown streets, it will also issue an audible alert if a bus or streetcar is starting to move nearby.

Volunteers’ automobiles will be outfitted with devices that “talk” to other connected vehicles to help prevent crashes. The cars will also communicate with downtown traffic and pedestrian signals to enhance safety, improve traffic flow and even reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

How does it work?

The technology will use the same sort of dedicated short-range communications to be used in the New York pilot. The technology allows roadside communication units along the 10-mile reversible lane section of the Lee Roy Selman cross-town toll-road expressway — which connects eastern Hillsborough County to the other side of downtown Tampa — to “speak” to vehicles and relay information.

“Each car will be installed with a [rearview] mirror, and on-board unit and an antenna … that will allow the vehicle to contact the roadside-unit and let them know where they’re at, and run the applications,” Frey explained. 

The rearview mirrors can interact with the driver via audio or through icons that appear on the surface of the mirror. Public transit buses and street cars will get a tablet device to relay the information to drivers.

“For example, one of the applications is an ‘end of freeway ramp’ warning,” said Frey. “So when they come to the end of the freeway, the vehicle’s speed is taken into consideration, and the number of vehicles in front of it, and it calculates this and tells them when they need to slow down.”

The program launched just a few days ago, and so far about 300 motorist have signed up to have the free equipment installed in their cars, say officials. Tampa received about $17 million from the federal government for the pilot, which received an additional $3.8 million local match from THEA.

The performance of the Tampa Connected Vehicle Pilot program will be measured by looking at whether traffic movement and safety along the toll-road stretch improves, said Frey.

“We’re looking forward to taking part and showing Tampa Bay what this technology can do, moving into the future,” 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.