A plan to turn a portion of Interstate 70 into a roadway where cars communicate with street lights, signs and other internet-connected things just tripled to more than 500 miles.
Colorado’s “internet of roads” project will now extend to highways that reach from Pueblo to Wyoming, and Sterling to Utah, after the state Department of Transportation was awarded a $20 million federal grant earlier this month.
But this isn’t about internet service for car passengers. The new technology, already being installed on about 130 miles of Colorado roads, is about safety and alerting drivers to oncoming road hazards or other issues. CDOT’s new $67 million project extends the technology to other roads, including Interstates 76, 25 and 270. About $36 million is expected to come from private companies in the form of installing internet fiber for the road project as they extend broadband service to rural communities. The rest would come from CDOT.
“We have the money to really move forward, which is cool,” said Amy Ford, CDOT’s chief of advanced mobility.
The project uses V2X, which stands for vehicle to everything, and it’s one of several futuristic pitches that originated under CDOT’s previous executive director Shailen P. Bhatt, who looked to technology to help the state resolve a limited transportation budget with a growing population. Before Bhatt left the gig last year, several such far-out, alternative transportation projects got their start, including Hyperloop One and high-speed transit Arrivo.
But this internet of roads project is based on technology being implemented today. Wyoming already has a V2X pilot program spanning 402 miles on Interstate 80. And automakers are building it into cars. It’s being used in 70 locations and “thousands of vehicles already on the road,” according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, which is working on a potential rule requiring future cars to be built with the technology inside.
The $20 million grant awarded in December is part of the federal agency’s BUILD program to support transportation infrastructure projects.
“We’re very excited to have won,” Ford said. “If we hadn’t, we’d have to find different funding sources. It certainly wouldn’t be moving forward at this scale.”
What is V2X?
As the proposed mandate winds its way through the federal government (it’s currently seeking public comment), the wireless technology is gaining support from automakers. It started showing up in Cadillacs last year. Volkswagen had committed to a 2019 start, while Toyota and Lexus will start in 2021 with “adoption across most of its lineup” by the mid 2020s.
But what exactly is it?
This short-range communication technology is a bit like a pair of walkie-talkies shared between two cars, with the one driving ahead radioing back to warn of approaching road issues.
But instead of just two cars, the warnings are shared between a swath of connected cars within about a 1,000-foot range, plus such objects as connected highway signs, guard rails and everything else — the X part of the V2X name. The technology can monitor traffic speeds, and car data like deployed airbags or the speed of window wipers, sending data at rates of up to 10 messages a second. Drivers and traffic patrollers can receive an audible or visual warning instantly if they’re within close range of an incident.
Some examples of how it could help drivers:
- Warn drivers of decelerating vehicles and potential front-end collision
- Warn of spot weather, like icy roads
- Broadcast a distress signal
- Indicate a countdown for a green light to turn yellow, or red to green
- Alert if a pedestrian is crossing the road several hundred feet ahead
- Warn of approaching vehicles in the car’s blind spot
- Alert drivers to road issues, like a rockslide, roadblock or car parked on the route
- Ultimately, set up the network to aid future autonomous vehicles
There are two competing wireless technologies. DSRC, or dedicated short range communications, is more like Wi-Fi. C-V2X, short for cellular vehicle to everything, uses cellular service. Each has support from different automakers, with Toyota and General Motors backing DSRC, while Ford and Audi support C-V2X.
But both essentially do the same thing. By creating a wireless link between objects and cars to share traffic and road data, drivers get alerts about potential slow downs or accidents instantly.The system can also report into a larger control center, such as CDOT, which in turn can relay traffic information more quickly.
The new communication system could help prevent car crashes, according to research by AECOM, which consulted on the project for CDOT. By installing V2X technology, Colorado roads would have 85,564 fewer wrecks, 22,294 fewer injuries and 303 fewer fatalities in the first 20 years, according to AECOM.
The assumptions are based on crash reductions after CDOT installed shoulder rumble strips, electric highway signs warning of weather or traffic backups and variable speed limits. It also takes into account that it will be a long time — 2058 — before 100 percent of vehicles on Colorado roads have V2X.
The technology still is proving itself and even when implemented, drivers still need to pay attention. The CDOT proposal for the BUILD grant mentioned a terrible wreck on I-25 near Pueblo in May. A truck driver didn’t notice traffic was slowing and plowed into the stopped cars, killing one driver and injuring many others. An alert may have prevented the tragedy.
A study by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute concluded that 8.1 million car crashes and 44,000 deaths would be prevented if the federal government mandated V2X immediately, instead of in 2022.
The technology has already been through 10 years of testing, including in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where “thousands of vehicles across the city have been communicating with one another and infrastructure,” according to Jim Sayer, director of the institute and the study’s co-author.
Colorado’s V2X experiment
CDOT partnered with Panasonic, Ford and Qualcomm in August to demonstrate the C-V2X technology at the Panasonic office near Denver International Airport. They built their own ecosystem with sensors in signs, traffic lights, pedestrian crossings and a few Ford vehicles.
Drivers in Ford vehicles received a visual alert on their dash when they approached a stop sign, when a pedestrian crossed the street and when an oncoming car was visually obscured by a parked truck. Those alerts could help drivers anticipate something in the road a thousand feet before reaching the object.
“We’ve also done some non-line-of-sight tests and we’ve found it is performing very well even if you park a large U-Haul right in front of it (the sensor), you can still get that message (when you’re) several hundred feet away,” driver Jack Walpuck, a Ford engineer, said during the test drive.
Panasonic has been building a command center at its Denver campus to help CDOT analyze data coming in from the V2X network. It’s part of a $71.5 million partnership between the state and Panasonic that began in 2017. The two have already been installing V2X technology on 90 miles of I-70 between Vail and Golden, plus another 40 miles in smaller sections of I-25 and C-470. About 100 CDOT vehicles plus 100 light poles or other roadside units have already been equipped with V2X hardware, or will be by the end of January, Ford said.
The new funding expands the project on I-70 from Utah to Deer Trail. The I-25 portion now extends from Pueblo to Wyoming, and the I-76 stretch runs from Hudson to Sterling.
The agency is already discussing plans to extend the technology for another 2,000 miles of Colorado roads to reach such cities as Boulder, Walsenburg and Wolf Creek, and shoot out from I-70 to Breckenridge, Aspen and Kremmling.
“The internet of roads has a larger footprint, closer to 2,000 miles, that connects and identifies all the major interstate corridors,” Ford said.
Boulder’s Zayo Group and Nebraska Link are participating because you can’t have a connected road unless there’s internet.
In a letter of support for the project, Zayo’s senior vice president of fiber solutions Dennis Kyle said the company will build fiber along 288 miles of highway in rural Western and Central Colorado. It will run along I-70 between Glenwood Springs and the Utah border.
“This extension of the state’s fiber network represents our contribution of approximately $25 million and will deliver greater social inclusion, economic development opportunities, and a general increase in the quality of life for the state’s rural communities,” Kyle wrote.
Nebraska Link plans to roll out 140 miles of fiber optic cable in rural northeast Colorado. It will provide CDOT with 86 miles of fiber along I-76 between Keenesburg and Sterling and fund $11.4 million of the project.
CDOT expects to begin rollout in 2019 and to complete the 500-mile project by the end of 2022.