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What Makes a Highway Smart?

Oct. 6, 2020
“Smart” highways and freeways require a convergence of components and technologies. Bart Lannoo, researcher at imec’s IDLab Antwerp, discusses the essentials and the steps being taken to making it happen on roads in Flanders, Belgium.

What you’ll learn:

  • What makes highways and freeways “smart?”
  • How “smart” technology can be used to help prevent vehicle accidents.

Every 25 seconds, somewhere in the world, someone dies on the road. Traffic accidents are often the result of human error (judgment). As a result, the call for self-driving vehicles rings louder all of the time. However, autonomous vehicles aren’t yet capable of taking their place on our busy, chaotic roads. In the short term, building a smart road infrastructure—combined with connected vehicles—is a more realistic option.

So, what makes highways and freeways “smart?” How can they help us avoid accidents? And do we need to look to other countries for these developments, or is Flanders, Belgium heading in the right direction, too? We interviewed Bart Lannoo, a researcher at IDLab Antwerp, imec’s research group at UAntwerpen, for his take on it all.

The Ultimate Goal: Zero Deaths on Flemish Roads by 2050

In 2018, a little under 24,000 road accidents resulting in injuries and even death were recorded in Flanders. This figure indicates a slight increase after many years of steady decline. The most common cause was human error (of judgment).

International studies tell us that factors such as speeding, fatigue, distraction, and drunk driving account for as much as 94% to 96% of all car accidents. No wonder, then, that the automotive industry has focused strongly in recent years on developing sophisticated driver-assistance systems that help drivers avoid or reduce the severity of accidents. Examples include blind-spot and pedestrian detection systems, cruise control, and traffic lane assistance. 

However, governments, insurance companies, medical experts, and other interest groups all want more. Under the motto of “Every road victim is one too many,” Flanders is doing everything it can to drive down the number of fatal accidents on Flemish roads to zero by 2050.

To achieve this ambitious “Vision Zero” objective, a great deal is expected from driverless vehicles. But we’re still a long way from getting there. Although a number of impressive clips of driverless cars are popular on YouTube, many years of research, development, and testing still lay ahead before we see driverless cars on our busy and unpredictable roads in Flanders. In the shorter term, though, a great deal can already be achieved by creating smart highways—especially at busy traffic hotspots—combined with connected vehicles (i.e., vehicles that communicate with each other as well as with the road infrastructure).

Communication Tech, Sensors, Cameras, Computing Power, and So Much More

“All over the world, research teams are trying to lay the foundations for the smart roads of the future,” says Bart Lannoo. “As an example, over the past three years, a European consortium of 26 partners from five countries, including Belgium, has been researching which technologies can be used for vehicles to communicate with each other to the greatest effect.

“This communication technology is crucial for enabling new, smart applications that fundamentally improve road safety and traffic flows. This includes truck platooning, in which trucks are linked together electronically, with the truck at the front determining the speed and route taken by the convoy, while the other trucks follow automatically, without the help of a driver. Perfect for avoiding rear-end collisions in traffic jams.

“Using the same technology, it should also be possible for connected driver-assistance systems in cars to anticipate hazardous situations in their vicinity far more quickly. The cars’ systems will then receive warnings in real time of other vehicles close to them.”

But to properly merit the term “smart,” a highway needs much more than just communication. New generations of sensors and cameras will be a prerequisite—and they will have to be smaller, more sensitive, and more energy-efficient. These devices will then gather information, 24/7, that can be used by the driver-assistance systems to take intelligent decisions in real-time. Connected traffic lights are also a must in creating smart highways.

“And it doesn’t end there,” adds Lannoo. “If you want to roll out these kinds of applications on a large scale, you need huge amounts of computing power. And where does this data-crunching power need to be—central in the cloud, as close as possible to the sensors, or distributed? Much more research is also needed on subjects such as interoperability between technologies and scalability.

“The challenges are not just technical—they’re economic, too. For instance, who is going to pay for the purchase, installation, and maintenance of the infrastructure? Local telecoms operators? The road authorities? Or do we have to set up a whole new body to deal with it? So, as you can see, a genuinely smart highway or freeway is the sum of all these practical questions and technical requirements.”

Which means there’s still a great deal of work to be done. But where do we stand today? And what specifically is happening in Flanders?

Unique Testing Infrastructure Along the E313 in Antwerp

“It is true that in order to build a smart road infrastructure, we still need to take a number of steps,” says Lannoo. “Having said that, an awful lot is already possible today, thanks partly to the pioneering role that Flanders has played in recent years.”

For example, the beginning of 2018 saw the setting up of the Flanders “Smart Highway” project, the first tangible result of which was a unique testing infrastructure along the E313 in Antwerp.

Says Lannoo, “Chain collisions and other types of accident often happen because drivers—and their driver-assistance systems—are unable to see what is happening beyond the vehicle in front of them. Which is why, with the ‘Smart Highway’ project, we wanted to enable cars to communicate directly with each other and then measure whether or not they could react faster to hazardous situations than their human drivers and even the most sophisticated driver-assistance systems.

“Tests involved three cars, driving along in a row. Two of them had communication modules, while in between them was just an ordinary car. When car number one performed an emergency stop, this information was passed on instantly to car number three. This meant that it could anticipate the situation much more quickly than if it was only relying on its own sensors.” 

Three Technologies to Consider

“For these kinds of solutions, there are various competing technologies to consider today,” says Lannoo. “That’s why the tests were carried out using three wireless communication technologies. These are a Wi-Fi variant (ITS-G5) and two 4G variants: the regular (long-range) 4G network and Direct C-V2X (for communication over shorter distances).

“It became clear that both 4G and ITS-G5 had an acceptable signal delay: approximately 15 ms with ITS-G5 and 40 to 50 ms with 4G. That is a better response time than human drivers are capable of. We also found that the signal delay from the regular 4G connection was inclined to spike unpredictably from time to time. That makes this technology less reliable for genuinely time-critical applications, such as responding quickly to unexpected traffic situations. The advent of 5G as the successor to 4G should solve the problem, although this still needs further testing.”

More recently, the performances of Direct C-V2X and ITS-G5 were also compared and, again, more follow-up research is required.

“Obviously, there is more work to be done,” concludes Lannoo. “But the Smart Highway tests are already demonstrating the potential of connected driver-assistance systems. What is clear, however, is that smart highways are absolutely a step in the right direction for making our traffic smoother and safer. And we certainly don’t have to wait for the introduction of driverless cars to take things forward. Flanders is also performing well in this area. Because it has the testing infrastructure in place, it can boast the potential to be closely involved in the latest developments and to prepare itself in depth for the next steps.”

Finally, Mobilidata

The “Smart Highway” project isn’t the only example of how Flanders is anticipating the mobility needs of tomorrow.

For example, the end of 2018 saw the start of “Mobilidata,” a Flemish government program with imec as the project coordinator. Mobilidata is designed to direct the mobility information coming from road users, infrastructure, vehicles, apps, and government systems to a single collection point and then make it available in real time. Of course, all of this information is anonymized. Flanders intends to use the data gathered to improve mobility, increase livability, and at the same time boost road safety and reduce damage to the environment and nature.

How do road users communicate with the connected systems? User smartphones, onboard computers in cars and trucks, or special devices, for example on bicycles, transmit a signal that communicates with connected systems. This enables traffic lights to respond better to actual traffic conditions. In the longer term, rolling out this smart data infrastructure will serve as a basis for the infrastructure that will make driverless vehicles possible in Flanders.

Mobilidata is a five-year program, running from the end of 2018 to 2023.

Bart Lannoo is senior business developer at IDLab Antwerp, an imec research group at the University of Antwerp. In 2018-2019, he took the initiative to develop the ‘Smart Highway’ testing infrastructure for V2X (vehicle-to-everything) communication in Flanders. Bart holds a Master’s in electrical engineering and a PhD awarded by UGent in July 2002 and May 2008, respectively.

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