What Your Car Knows Can Make the Roads Safer — and Pave the Way for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles

Onboard computer systems identify dilemma zones and hard-braking events.

Next time you drive your car or truck, consider this: Your vehicle probably knows more about the road conditions you face than the agency that built and maintains the roads.

Most vehicles driven today have electronic sensors that collect a wealth of data on motorist and vehicle behavior. Automobile manufacturers could pool this information and share it in real time with transportation agencies. Data could be aggregated so as to protect drivers’ privacy and automakers’ intellectual property.

Why is this important? The information, in the hands of DOTs, would go a long way toward improving our nation’s transportation infrastructure — filling an urgent need as agencies prepare for connected and autonomous vehicles.

The additional layer of insights would enable transportation agencies to more proactively and cost-effectively remove hazards, prioritize capital investments, and identify best practices. As a result, traffic safety would advance more quickly, tax dollars would be spent more wisely, and our highways could be adapted better to integrate self-driving vehicles. These upgrades also would benefit our national economy, which depends on seamless interstate commerce.

How can connected sensor data aid transportation agencies’ decision-making? Here are some examples:

· Accelerometers can perceive a spike in hard braking in a given location, indicating dangerous conditions that are triggering close calls — suggesting a need for engineering assessment. This detection method is important because antilock brakes generally don’t leave observable skid marks.

· Vehicle sensors related to stability and ride quality can provide real-time mapping of emerging potholes, leading to quicker repairs that avert car damage and further deterioration of the road.

Typical dashboard display for lane-departure warning systems in a modern vehicle.

· Advance traction control systems, helpful during snowfalls, can provide better real-time road condition data than sensors embedded in the pavement, according to Purdue research. Information collected by these systems could assist agencies in deploying plows and salt trucks during rapidly changing snowstorms.

· Lane-departure warning systems know when drivers can’t clearly see lane markings, indicating worn or confusing lines — data that could guide DOTs’ maintenance practices and systemic best practices.

· Emerging sign-reading technology on vehicles could help agencies pinpoint locations where overgrown vegetation is obscuring signs. This capability will be essential once autonomous vehicles hit the road.

When can all of this happen? These scenarios are possible today.

The Purdue Engineering Joint Transportation Research Program (JTRP) is already working with the Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT) to capture real-time highway speed data. We ingest speed data at a rate of about 5,000 records per minute. This effort dates to 2011 and provides a living laboratory that sets the national standard for collaboration among public agencies, academia and industry to spur innovations in the planning, design, construction, operation, management and economic efficiency of our transportation infrastructure.

Indiana leadership in this area is well recognized, and a recently initiated Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) project involving 12 states is developing new partnerships, data collection techniques, and algorithms for using this enhanced probe data to improve the operation of traffic signal systems.

Vehicle to Infrastructure Communication Architecture

What’s next? As advanced sensors and self-driving cars present new opportunities and needs, it’s time to scale up.

“Autonomy has emerged as a convergence of several exciting directions in technology to shape how we live, work and play,” says Mung Chiang, the John A. Edwardson Dean of the College of Engineering. “That’s why Purdue Engineering launched the Initiative in Autonomous and Connected Systems to bring together diverse disciplines and mingle research with education.”

The new PEI integrates the efforts of myriad programs and centers, including the JTRP. The advent of connected and autonomous vehicles creates a critical need to elevate the smart infrastructure. Leveraging Purdue’s leadership, we’re talking with auto industry, transportation agency and elected leaders about forming a partnership to initiate direct data sharing between auto manufacturers and state and federal transportation agencies.

I recently had the opportunity to testify before the House Subcommittee on Research and Technology on these emerging opportunities. I think my statement that our vehicles know more about the condition of our infrastructure than agencies do resonated with members. I envision this will lead to new partnerships between the automotive industry, public agencies and universities to fully harness these new data sources, ultimately improving the safety, efficiency and economic impact of our national surface transportation network.

Transportation innovations we’re championing could have a multibillion-dollar economic impact, as we’re looking beyond interstate highways. Already, Purdue researchers are exploring ways to stimulate collaboration across all transportation modes — including rail, water and air travel — to ensure that freight moves in the most efficient, safe and environmentally sound manner. Our prominence in this area is natural, given that Governor Eric Holcomb likes to say, “In Indiana, the Crossroads of America is more than a motto; it’s our mission.” Among several pathways, we’re investigating emerging crowdsourcing performance measures that show promise for fueling holistic transportation advancements.

In the spirit of cooperation and continuous improvement, we invite you to join the dialogue.

Dr. Darcy Bullock

By Darcy Bullock, Lyles Family Professor of Civil Engineering, Co-Chair of the Purdue Engineering Initiative in Autonomous and Connected Systems, and Director of the Joint Transportation Research Program at Purdue University

Related Content:

Purdue Engineering Initiative in Autonomous and Connected Systems

Joint Transportation Research Program

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Congressional Hearing: Bumper to Bumper: The Need for a National Surface Transportation Research Agenda

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