Innovation Trends

Interview: Lessons from Colorado’s Smart Roads Development Project, RoadX

We live in an era of connectedness. There’s smartphones, smart homes and if you’ve purchased a new vehicle recently, you probably have a smart car.

And yet the roads that enable us to travel between connected spaces are still not much more than asphalt with lines painted on them.

Is that the next big opportunity?

Some states think so, and are currently embarking on smart road projects. One of those states is Colorado, which currently has over 23,000 lane miles in the state highway system (close to 90,000 when you figure in city and county roads).

Many of those lane miles travel through remote and high mountain passes. As Amy Ford, Chief of Advanced Mobility for the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT), told us in an interview, “If you run off the road in these particular areas, it’s by the grace of God that maybe someone saw that you went off because you are down in a ravine.”

CDOT’s expansive RoadX program is looking to turn those situations where you are living on a hope and a prayer into scenarios where a smart highway will alert emergency services as soon as it senses your car has left the road.

RoadX advancements like these are becoming a reality, in part, thanks to help from CDOT’s technology partners like Panasonic. Recently, Panasonic demonstrated a new system in Denver called C-V2X — a cloud-based data platform capable of sharing real-time traffic information with other vehicles, and pushing those insights out to CDOT.

Physically, a smart highway is a roadway made of concrete slabs embedded with fiber-optic cables, sensors and Wi-Fi connectivity.

Holistically, it is a road that can connect with your automobile’s communication system or your smartphone to alert you if you are drifting onto the shoulder or driving too fast, warn you of a closure ahead and redirect you or notify first-responders when it senses an accident.

Ford said that safety — and rural road safety, in particular — is the driver of the RoadX program. CDOT’s vision for RoadX is crash-free, injury-free, delay-free and technologically-transformed travel in Colorado.

That’s a tall order and a massive project, but Ford shared a few things she’s learned since RoadX was first unveiled in 2015.

Feedback Is Critical

Connected travel means collecting quite a bit of information, and let’s face it, there are still many opportunities to improve how organizations manage data.

For some, a government agency collecting driving data might be a bit too “big brother” for their comfort. CDOT faced this issue head-on by surveying the public before launching this project to introduce the idea of emerging technologies and whether or not the department should play a role.

What they found surprised them, Ford said. Of all the issues the state could be focusing on, using technology to improve road safety and mobility was something the people of Colorado wanted. As to who should manage the data and privacy issues, it turned out the public also wanted CDOT to take charge of that aspect.

“The privacy issues are paramount,” Ford said. She explained that while CDOT will know if a vehicle’s airbag has been deployed, or if a car is approaching a curve too fast, they will not know whose vehicle it is. The point of the technology is to save lives, not to police people’s driving habits.

New Skill Sets Are Required

When you embark on a project this transformative, there will be additional training needed. “When you think about RoadX, and you think about advanced mobility,” Ford said, “one of the things we’ve been thinking about holistically is the workforce of the future.”

During the pilot program, the installation of new connected pavements, and the maintenance of the sensors and fibers within them, are the responsibility of CDOT’s industry partners.

However, should the pilot be a success and CDOT decides to expand the program, these tasks are going to be part of their operations and maintenance crew’s responsibilities.

CDOT will also have to train employees in data analytics and start to include these skills in job descriptions when recruiting new employees.

Knowledge Sharing Benefits Everyone

CDOT is a forward-thinking agency when it comes to improving roadways, but it also shares that mentality with a few other states, such as Georgia, Michigan and California.

“I think that you see a handful of states — and we’re perhaps one of them — who are willing to be the tip of the spear in regard to really pushing these dynamic technologies into deployment,” Ford said.

Interestingly, each state is kind of doing their own thing — testing out different types of technology to see what works and what does not. Then, through the exchange of information and collaboration with other DOTs, they can collectively discover the best approaches.

These innovative states are not only working together to share information, best practices and lessons learned, but also serving as a model and cheerleader for others to get on board.

“We live in this moment right now where transportation technology has the capacity to truly transform how people move, and we haven’t been in this kind of moment since the car or even air travel was invented,” Ford said, admitting that while that might sound a bit grand, it’s true.

“It’s our job to think about how you prepare for that future and move it as quickly as we possibly can,” she said. “Every day, people are dying on a road, and a lot of this has the potential to save people’s lives, so we want to move with due haste.”

The future of automotive travel is progressing fast. Keeping passengers safe while ensuring their vehicles are equipped with the latest technology can be a delicate balancing act for automotive development teams. Driverless cars take that notion to a whole new level. Learn how a Fortune 100 semiconductor company is meeting these challenges with an integrated and compliance-ready solution in our white paper, “Driving Compliance with Functional Safety Standards for Software-Based Automotive Components.”

Author Traci Browne is a freelance writer focusing on technology and products.