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Technology, Automation Can Make Roadways Safer for All Users

Tech leaders from the public sector gathered for the virtual NVIDIA conference to discuss how automation and other technologies are being used to improve roadway safety and traffic efficiencies.

Wireless traffic
Automation, data and the interoperability of systems can all help to improve transportation in urban areas, experts assert.

Emphasis in these areas is heavily weighted toward certain sectors of transportation, said Las Vegas Chief Innovation Officer Michael Sherwood, noting that smarter traffic and curb management tech seems to resonate with citizens and most elected leaders.

“As we move forward, it’s going to be, how do all these sensors coexist? How do we provide transparency to the community? And then how do we demonstrate and improve the value of these systems going forward?” he added.

Sherwood joined other public-sector technology officials on a panel discussion at the NVIDIA conference March 23. The conversation revolved around the future of smart city technologies, IoT and other developments to advance the workings of cities, particularly when it comes to transportation.

“At the policy-making level, I think we’re seeing a huge shift in people are realizing that we need to ask people for information — not necessarily data — but insight to be able to make decisions which people are requesting that we make as cities,” said Clay Garner, chief innovation officer for San Jose, Calif.

Cities from Las Vegas and beyond have been active in their exploration of technology to better manage street curbs, parking, traffic management and other areas. Officials at the NVIDIA conference speculated on the increased use of automation — in the form of connected vehicles and other infrastructure — to help manage increasingly crowded, and dangerous, roadways.

“In order to pack more vehicles on the road, the only way is automation,” said Asfand Siddiqui, senior transport engineer at the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans).

The state of California manages 51,000 lane-miles of roadway, with 35 million vehicles and 24 million drivers, “and lots of fatalities,” said Siddiqui. In 2019, there were 3,600 fatalities on California roadways. More than 900 of these were considered “vulnerable road users.”

“You cannot pack more vehicles on the road, as they are today,” he remarked, adding, automation with vehicle connectivity will allow for vehicles to travel closer together, in a safer posture than human drivers could provide.

The safety of pedestrians and cyclists — considered vulnerable road users — are also a concern for officials in San Jose, which is using lidar technology to identify near-misses. Most of these interactions are happening at night or in low-light conditions, making lidar — which uses laser technology to determine an object’s distance — as one of the best solution for collecting data in these conditions. The technology could be used to help automate traffic signaling, or alert drivers, so that when a pedestrian is in or near an intersection, safety can be improved to preempt a collision or near-miss, said Garner.

“If we can save a single life with one of these sensors, that would have been completely worth the investment,” he added.

The idea of using technology to better identify cyclists and pedestrians was also echoed by Siddiqui.

“Because if you cannot see them, you cannot save them,” said Siddiqui. “When it comes to managing traffic, we need to detect vehicles, and there are systems out there that can do it very well. But when it comes to picking out pedestrians and bicyclists, that’s the challenge.”

Data is at the center of nearly every smart city or transportation system, and how it is collected, analyzed and shared across a range of platforms will be at the heart of how effectively those systems can be used to spur innovation and other improvements in urban life, experts say.

“We’re just running out there installing, and hoping something sticks, or something works, and you try to prove these methodologies out,” said Sherwood. “But I’m hoping in the next couple of years we’re going to see some standardization and some more interfaces that not only allow new creation and new ideas to be adopted, but also allow for an exchange of information between platforms."
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.