Researchers at the University of Alabama are embarking on a $16.8 million project to transform the roads and highways in the Tuscaloosa area into a smart transportation network that is safer, less congested and more environmentally friendly.
By dotting the roadways in West Central Alabama with sensors and cameras, utilizing emerging technologies like machine learning, and advancing concepts like connected vehicles, the UA researchers are designing the transportation system of tomorrow.
“The smart thing about this is that we’re using technology to help improve the performance of the transportation system,” said Dr. Alex Hainen, UA assistant professor of civil, construction and environmental engineering, and a researcher on the project.
“We are putting a lot of technology out there that will make conditions safer and help us respond faster when there is a problem,” he added. “It’s really going to enhance transportation safety and efficiency.”
UA’s Alabama Transportation Institute (ATI) is taking the lead on the multi-faceted project, called the Advanced Connected Transportation Infrastructure & Operations Network, or ACTION for short.
The three-year project is made possible by an $8 million research grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation that was finalized days ago. A group of state and local agencies is contributing another $8.8 million in funding.
The objectives are ambitious:
- Improve safety by reducing secondary crashes by 20 percent in the ACTION area
- Increase travel time reliability by 25 percent
- Reach at least half of the region’s motorists with apps and other information systems
- Reduce emissions by achieving system-level fuel economy benefits by as much as 5 percent
- Minimize production downtime for area just-in-time manufacturers by 5 percent
- Integrate at least 75 percent of the intersections and 70 percent of the freeway network in the ACTION region
“What sets this project apart is that we will have this system on roads that the public uses as opposed to doing this on a very protected test track or test bed,” said Dr. Shashi Nambisan, P.E., the ATI’s executive director and the principal investigator on the federal grant.
“Our test bed is the road that you and I and everyone else drives on.”
Dr. Nambisan said the integrated regional transportation model approach at the heart of ACTION has far-reaching implications for just about every major transportation corridor across the nation.
“This is a model that could be adopted by other agencies,” he said.
The ACTION initiative builds on work conducted over the past four years by Dr. Hainen to improve intersections in the Tuscaloosa area.
By utilizing technology to optimize traffic flow at these intersections, he has been able to increase the number of motorists arriving on a green signal at traffic lights by 17 percent — a level of improvement nearly equivalent to adding a new lane.
“Alex has made tremendous improvements at signalized intersections in and around Tuscaloosa and Northport, but we haven’t done much on the freeway corridors,” Dr. Nambisan said.
“Our goal is to deploy technologies to improve these corridors, which carry a significant part of our interstate commerce as well as local traffic.”
ENHANCING SAFETY AND MOBILITY
As ACTION unfolds, the UA research team will place cable median sensors along a 10-mile stretch of Interstate 59 approaching Tuscaloosa. If a vehicle strikes the cable, these wireless sensors will communicate with a nearby radio that is part of an alert system to get authorities on the scene.
“In a rural area where you do not have the traffic volume, especially at night, we want to be able to quickly provide appropriate help that may be needed,” Dr. Nambisan said.
In addition, more than two dozen video cameras will be installed at strategic points along a 32-mile stretch of the interstate where fiber optic cable will be laid.
Since there are no cameras between Exits 68 and 100 today, the West Central Region Traffic Center, a command and control center established by the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) and UA, can’t visually monitor the freeway.
Once the extensive network of cameras is in place, the UA research team plans to use machine learning to automate the monitoring system, eliminating the need for a significant increase in manpower at the traffic center.
“Artificial intelligence will be helpful in how we watch the system and alert us whenever something is happening,” Dr. Hainen said. “With AI, we can automatically scan the video feeds that come in and, if it sees an incident, flag them so an operator can look at it, verify it, and get help out there.”
To improve intersections in the ACTION region, the UA team will rely on emerging connected vehicle and infrastructure technologies, as well as mobility tools. A key element is an expanded deployment of the dedicated short-range communication (DSRC) radios used by Dr. Hainen in his earlier Tuscaloosa project.
By relaying traffic information to signal controllers, DSRC radios can play a significant role in minimizing traffic delays and reducing fuel consumption, the researchers say.
The radios are a core feature in what will become Alabama’s first “Vehicle to Infrastructure,” or V2I, mobility system.
Here is how it will work: Motorists will be able to receive messages via a smartphone app that provide important driving information such as the green traffic signal in front of them is turning yellow in 5 seconds. The system can also alert pedestrians and cyclists of dangers.
“We’re building an integrated transportation system today that is going to play into tomorrow, and there are a lot of moving pieces,” Dr. Hainen said.
The robust analytical tools and technologies that are baked into ACTION will allow transportation officials in West Central Alabama to proactively manage the area’s roadways so they are safer and more efficient.
Because the project also focuses on commercial traffic and freight, the researchers say it will add to the region’s economic vitality.
In addition, ACTION will present UA students with an opportunity to work with various data streams and develop first-hand experience with advanced technologies that will increasingly be adopted on transportation networks across the nation, better preparing the students for careers.
“We are also in the business of preparing the workforces of the future,” Dr. Nambisan said.
UA’s partners on ACTION include ALDOT, The Tuscaloosa County Road Improvement Commission, the cities of Tuscaloosa and Northport and transportation consulting firms, as well as manufacturing and trucking companies.
In addition to Drs. Nambisan and Hainen, UA researchers working on the project are Drs. Bharat Balasubramanian, Joshua Bittle, Randy Smith, Laura Myers, and Jun Liu.
UA’s College of Engineering is involved through the Department of Civil, Construction, and Environmental of Engineering; the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering; and the Department of Mechanical Engineering.
Other participating UA research entities are the Center for Advanced Public Safety, the Center for Advanced Vehicle Technologies, and the University Transportation Center for Alabama.