VTTI’s Smart Road: Driving Toward Zero

Chairman Hersman with VTTI Director Tom Dingus
Chairman Hersman with VTTI Director Tom Dingus

By Debbie Hersman

In the ambitious but achievable quest for zero deaths on our highways, strong laws, strong enforcement and smarter personal choices will all play a role. So will advances in safety technology – and that does not just mean vehicles. During a recent trip to speak at the 25th anniversary of the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI), Director Tom Dingus took me on a tour of the Smart Road, a 2.2-mile technological marvel tucked into the green hills of Southwestern Virginia.

The Smart Road is a closed research test track built to highway specifications, owned by the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) and managed by VTTI. Behind the scenes, it has quietly added an arrow to the quiver of every crusader for highway safety.

Since the Smart Road was opened in 2000, it has been used for more than 17,500 research hours. Its 75 weather towers are capable of simulating conditions ranging from torrential downpours to fine drizzle, snowfall at the rate of four inches per hour (conditions permitting), and fog. Its lighting towers with variable pole spacing are designed to replicate 95 percent of national highway systems. Fourteen different asphalt mixtures make up its surface. Sensors throughout the road collect data (e.g., moisture, temperature, strain, vibration, weigh-in-motion), and seven roadside equipment units facilitate connected-vehicle communication, as surveillance cameras convey video in real time to a control center. Its 175-foot-high Smart Road Bridge is the tallest in the state. And the entire road is connected by a high-bandwidth fiber-optic network.

Simulated weather conditions at the VTTI. Photo by Rick Griffiths
Simulated weather conditions at the VTTI. Photo by Rick Griffiths

All of that makes the Smart Road the perfect place to test new safety approaches, whether they apply to the surfaces of our highways, the way they’re lit, or safety features built into vehicles. Active safety systems now in commercial use first saw testing on the Smart Road and other VTTI test beds, including such collision avoidance systems as backup warnings, blind spot warnings, assisted braking and forward collision warnings. As Tom put it,

“We test them on the Smart Road to determine their safety benefits, whether there were unintended consequences, and how drivers really use a system compared to how engineers thought it would be used.”

Today, researchers are testing connected-vehicle technology on the Smart Road prior to deployment in the real world to assess the potential for safety benefits while minimizing driving distraction and information overload. VTTI is also testing automated vehicle technologies and user acceptance. Industry leaders such as Google and GM use the Smart Road to address automated vehicle topics. Law enforcement personnel use the road for emergency maneuver and crash reconstruction classes.

Technology as simple as the seat belt, coupled with strong laws and enforcement, helped to bring yearly highway fatalities down from more than 47,000 in 1965 – the year of the first national seat-belt standard – to fewer than 34,000 in 2012. Taking into account the number of miles Americans drive, the chance of a fatality has fallen nearly fivefold.

The more lessons come from state-of-the-art facilities like the Smart Road, the fewer we have to learn the hard way – from actual highway crashes. VTTI’s Smart Road is helping with research and development of the technologies, materials, and rules of the road that, together with changes in driver behavior, can make highway fatalities a thing of the past.

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