Photo by Steven Mackay.

A consortium of Virginia schools will soon start testing vehicles in Fairfax County that can talk to each other and their surroundings. But what will “connected vehicles” (CV) really mean for transportation and urbanism?

Researchers have attached tracking equipment to light poles and other roadside infrastructure in and around Merrifield, including stretches of I-66, Lee Highway, and Route 50. The roadside equipment will communicate with devices about the size of an E-ZPass installed in 12 “connected vehicles,” including a bus, semi-truck, cars, and motorcycles.

The devices collect data such as acceleration, braking, and curve handling. Researchers hope that the new system will dramatically reduce highway crashes, increase fuel efficiency, and improve air quality.

"The intersection can say ‘there is snow happening right here,’” explains Gabrielle Laskey of the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. Conversely, if a connected car were to experience a loss of traction, it would relay that information to the roadside devices so authorities would know the precise location of hazardous conditions.


Left: a CV data collection unit. Right: an in-car CV display. Photo from the VTTI.


The research will focus on ways to improve both safety and mobility. “If we can detect initial braking, we can slow vehicles down and message the driver, saying something like ‘Slow traffic ahead. Reduce speed to 45 mph’ or ‘Left lane closed ahead; merge right,’” said VDOT Spokesperson Cathy McGhee.

Study will involve area drivers and “regular” cars

The CV technology will go further than the Active Traffic Management System of overhead dynamic signs VDOT will soon install on I-66. The CV system “can give information directly to the driver and provide an additional level of information,” said McGhee.

Although the CV roadside equipment is already in place in Merrifield, the connected vehicles are undergoing final road testing on the Virginia test track in Blacksburg. In January, those vehicles plus another 50 operated by VDOT will roll out on Merrifield highways.

In the spring, researchers will seek out drivers of an additional 200 “regular” vehicles through ads on Craigslist and in the Washington Post. Their cars will receive communication devices similar to test vehicles’ which will notify drivers verbally or by tone through a GPS-sized display. Drivers who volunteer for the program will not need specialized driving skills. “We want to use naïve participants and make these devices as useful and available as a cell phone,” says Laskey.

Over the next couple of years, a consortium of research institutions consisting of Virginia Tech, the University of Virginia, and Morgan State University will conduct 19 separate CV research studies, about half of which will have components in the Merrifield test bed, at a projected cost of $14 million. 

One study looks at road signs that can switch from “yield” to “stop,” depending on conditions. Another examines how to dim or shut off roadway lighting when it is not needed. And a study in Baltimore involves the use of smart phones and looks at safety and congestion issues related to public transit, transit passengers, pedestrians, and bicyclists.

The new CV technology can also work in conjunction with some current safety systems which use video to “see” non-connected items, such as a pedestrian in a crosswalk, then alert the connected vehicle. The system helps connected vehicles operate on the roadways before a fully connected or automated roadway system exists.

How will CV influence our transportation network?

CV technology could change the way we use and design our streets. Since connected vehicles will alert drivers to imminent collisions, CV technology is expected to drop the crash rate at least by 50 percent, according Thomas Dingus, director of the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, which is coordinating the public-private venture.


Dingus and a CV motorcycle. Photo by the Jessamine Kane-Wiseley.


Connected vehicles will be able to safely travel much closer together than cars can today, vastly improving the efficiency of existing highway infrastructure. At the CV system’s public debut on June 6, Governor McDonnell noted that the technology “could do as much to help alleviate congestion as the building or widening of new highways.”

Researchers say CV technology could be in widespread use within five years, which Virginia and Maryland should keep in mind as they decide how to spend billions in new transportation funding. Cars traveling closer together will require less space, so road widenings might not be necessary. On already wide streets, the extra space could be used for bike lanes, sidewalks, or landscaping. Building smaller streets not only costs less, but it frees up room for buildings and open space, making communities more compact and preserving land.

If you’d like to learn more about connected vehicles, USDOT is holding a public meeting in Arlington from September 24 to 26. The agenda includes information about the CV safety program and the Intelligent Transportation Systems Strategic Plan for 2015 to 2019.