Connected Streets – Coming to a Road Near You

  • Cities and states across the country are building connected vehicle environments.
  • These environments will change our cars and the way we drive.
  • Connected vehicle projects promise to make our streets and roads safer, someday.
  • The transition to connected vehicle environments will take time, money, work, and our participation.

Yippi-hoo! My neighborhood’s getting a connected street. I’m sure I’m supposed to do a happy dance. Maybe I should offer my heartfelt thanks to city planners. Except, when I first heard about this 11 million dollar project, I had no idea what it was or how it would actually help me!

I did what every curious, post-modern citizen must: I took a Google-dive. I read fantastic company produced blogs complete with slick Youtube videos. My fun-factor spun out of control. I knew I was feasting on marketing hype. So, armed with a new vocabulary, I set out to understand what’s really happening in my neighborhood.

It’s Been a Long Road to Here

The Global Positioning System (GPS), originally Navstar GPS, is a satellite-based radionavigation system owned by the United States government and operated by the United States Air Force. It is a global navigation satellite system that provides geolocation and time information to a GPS receiver anywhere on or near the Earth where there is an unobstructed line of sight to four or more GPS satellites. Obstacles such as mountains and buildings block the relatively weak GPS signals.

Our cars have been talking to us for years. Remember, back in the ‘80s, “The door is ajar?” We loved those messages so much we silenced them. That was simple stuff; a recorded sound delivered when a sensor said make noise now.

In the late ‘90s, we got our first on-board, auto-PCs with voice-activated controls. If we could afford the price tag, we could tell our cars to read our emails or play a track from a CD. Most of us didn’t bother.

Eventually, Garmin convinced us to plop a GPS way-finder on top of our dashboards. Paper maps slowly disappeared.

Then we all got smartphones and carried them into our cars. Car-makers jumped with on-board cellular communication systems and our cars got shark fins. We were cool. Then again, if we didn’t have an equipped car, we could just keep using our cell phones and pretend we were cool. Either way, we could listen to music, find our destination, and talk on the phone. Life was good.

Technology marched on.

Cutting Through the Marketing Buzz

Connected, autonomous, and assisted vehicles promises a whole new level of driving ease and safety, but contrary to the marketing buzz, they’re not the same things. Assisted vehicles do things for you, like parallel park. That’s nice, since most of us aren’t very good at it. Autonomous vehicles drive themselves. So far, they’re not ready for widespread deployment but delivery and ride-hailing companies are all in.

A connected vehicle is something entirely different. It speaks and listens to the street environment. It’s like have having an extra set of eyes that can see things a human driver can’t.

The system also talks to traffic managers and gives them the power to control the flow of traffic.

I’m not quite back to a happy-dance. How does all this work? And what’s required of me, the citizen-driver?

Roadside Unit – A Box on the Street

Connected vehicles have to connect to something. It’s in the name. In the Columbus project, our cars will connect to a receiver/transmitter box mounted on street poles or traffic light lines. Drivers will see a box that looks like a new-style TV antenna. You know, the mostly flat kind that sits on the shelf and picks up local TV channels. Except the roadside box isn’t FM, Wi-Fi, or cellular. It’s a short-range wireless communication system that works super fast and doesn’t rely on not-yet-available 5G cell service.

These boxes have to be mounted and that means construction vehicles working above the street.

Then there’s the fiber optic cables that connect the street to the traffic control center. Laying cables means digging and digging on or next to roads slows down traffic.

Traffic Control Center – People, Monitors, and Power

The traffic control center controls the environment. They’ll monitor traffic flow. They’ll see problems like congestion and respond by adjusting traffic lights. They’ll see unexpected choke points and dispatch services. In Columbus, the system will give transit buses, ambulances, police, and EMTs all the green lights they need to move swiftly up and down the street.

That sounds good. But the system does more than see problems, it helps drivers avoid creating problems in the first place.

On-Board Units ‘Listen’ and ‘Talk’ to the Environment

The roadside units broadcast information from the traffic system to drivers. For your car to communicate with the roadside box, it has to have an on-board unit installed in the vehicle. This on-board unit tells the roadside unit things like the car’s speed, acceleration, braking, and location. At the same time, it listens to information from the roadside boxes and communicates that to the driver.

This might be the fun part. As a driver, you’ll be able to know things that you can’t see. For example, you’ll know the light on the other side of the bus in front of you is about to turn red. Or you’ll know that you’re entering a school zone even though the sign is blocked. Someday, the system will even tell you that a pedestrian just stepped into the intersections.

Now that’s helpful!

To get this, we drivers have to take our cars to a shop, let techs tear them apart, install gear, and put them back together. That might be free for now, but we’ll see what it costs us over time. There are also serious privacy concerns. The on-board unit is like an Amazon Echo – listening to your car, knowing where you are, and telling others what you’re doing. That’s worth thinking about!

Just Advice, For Now

The Columbus connected vehicle project won’t automatically fine drivers for disobedience, but it might, someday. It also won’t tell anyone that it was me driving down Cleveland Avenue last Thursday between 6:01 and 6:23 pm. But how will our streets work in 20 years? Will we lose our anonymity? Will police or insurance companies get access to our driving records? These are important questions that haven’t been answered yet.

Still, There are Benefits

Let’s say I’m a few cars behind you. You jam your breaks. My car tells me a car somewhere in front of me is breaking hard. I can’t see you, but I know what you’re doing. Now, I can slow down before I plow into the car between us. An accident has been avoided.

And that’s the main point – to save lives and property. The whole Connected Vehicle Environment is meant to make our streets safer. But it won’t do that any time soon. We’re at the beginning of a transformation that will require a lot more time, money, work, and cooperation to get everyone talking and listening to one another.

My initial happy-dance is now a slight, ‘oh, this nice’ and ‘hum, do I want to participate?’ And, ‘do I even want my car talking with the street around me?’

Coming to A City Near You

My Columbus neighborhood is entering a transition from limited, eyes-only driving to smarter, car-informed driving. We’re not alone. Connected vehicles may already be in a city or state near you. And if they’re not yet, they will be. Colorado, Wyoming, and Texas are connecting highway traffic and infrastructure. New York City, Tampa, and my city, Columbus, are focused on city streets. New Jersey is communicating safety information to maps like WAZE. Each is deciding the best use of connected technology to solve their most significant traffic problems.

The connected vehicle environment tipping point is coming. Our streets and roads are changing. The way we drive is changing. The information we reveal about ourselves is increasing. Along the way, we’ll spend money, debate technology, and wrestle over privacy. When we’re done, we may have safer streets and roads for everyone. At least, that’s the dream.

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Gayle McCord

Freelance Writer/JournalistCovering the nexus between urban mobility, smart cities, and community, business, and governmental stakeholders

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