University of Arizona Professor Larry Head demonstrates how SMARTDrive’s connected vehicle technology works on April 18, 2017, while driving in a van in Anthem. Mark Henle/azcentral.com
A test track run by Maricopa County with two partners is one of just a few in the country piloting the latest smart technologies in the transportation industry.
It’s hard to spot anything unusual on the quiet Anthem street lined by paloverde trees.
But if you look carefully, evidence of cutting-edge experiments is in the sky. Antennalike contraptions are fixed to the top of every street light in a five-mile loop.
The equipment has turned Daisy Mountain Drive in the far north Valley into ground zero for testing of pioneering vehicle technology that eventually could reduce emergency response times, help people with disabilities, speed traffic and prevent thousands of accidents each year.
The SMARTDrive test track run by Maricopa County, in partnership with the University of Arizona and the Arizona Department of Transportation, is one of just a few in the country that are piloting the latest smart technologies in the transportation industry, officials said.
“We have been playing a leading role nationally in the development and implementation of this technology,” said Faisal Saleem, the Maricopa County Transportation Department’s SMARTDrive program manager. “We want to be in that leadership role. We have that culture of innovation and also the support from our leadership and partners,” key among them Anthem neighborhoods.
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Ahead of the curve on public safety
Maricopa County is ahead of the curve in preparing for the future of connected cars, said K. Larry Head, professor at the Transportation Research Institute at University of Arizona, who is involved in the Anthem project.
Communities such as Salt Lake City, San Diego, Portland, and Columbus, Ohio, have borrowed the technology from Maricopa County, while groups from around the country tour the testing site throughout the year, he said.
“When cars come out and have this (technology), Maricopa County (will be) ready to understand it and take advantage of it,” Head said. “And hopefully that will save lives.”
The technology could benefit drivers by:
- Reducing crashes between emergency vehicles. When ambulances, fire trucks or police cruisers arrive at the same intersection from different directions, their drivers would no longer have to guess when to proceed. Instead, digital signals sent from the emergency vehicles to street lights could change the timing to allow the highest-priority vehicle to go first.
- Allowing people time to cross streets safely. Those who are elderly, blind, in a wheelchair or with other disabilities could use an app on their phones to trigger crosswalk signals. The app would count out loud how many seconds are left to cross and allow pedestrians to request more time.
- Quickening truck traffic. Tractor-trailers with the technology could activate green lights along shipping corridors during off-peak times. For instance, trucks carrying goods from the Amazon Fulfillment Center in Phoenix could travel faster along Maricopa County Route 85 in the West Valley late at night when traffic volume is low.
- Preventing accidents at intersections. When a passenger car is about to run a red light, the technology could send a warning to the driver to slow down, or it could delay the traffic light so oncoming cars wait until the intersection is safe.
Currently, only Maricopa County vehicles outfitted with special equipment can interact with the system. They operate during the middle of the day when Anthem residents are at work or school.
Working out the kinks
Maricopa County partners with University of Arizona on a vehicle test track to demo the latest “smart technologies.”
On a recent morning, a county Transportation Department official pulled an SUV out of a parking lot onto Daisy Mountain Drive, as a screen inside the vehicle flashed colored symbols indicating concerns that were staged along the road — a construction zone, an accident, a school zone and an approaching fire truck.
At most intersections, the traffic lights turned green for the SUV.
“You get spoiled. You don’t stop much,” Head joked.
But as the SUV rolled up to the same street light that a fire truck was approaching, the display showed that the fire truck would be given priority, and the light turned red for the SUV.
Later, SMARTDrive representative Mehdi Zamanipour showed off the pedestrian app.
Standing on a sidewalk, he pointed a mobile phone at a crosswalk, pressed a button on the screen and activated a series of voice commands. “Don’t walk,” the app said while the traffic light was red. When it was safe to walk, the app counted the seconds left to cross.
But the tests didn’t go perfectly.
The technology was slow to recognize the fire truck seeking green-light priority. And the pedestrian app hiccuped repeatedly, counting the seconds faster or slower than the crossing sign showed.
It will improve, said Head.
“That’s why we’re out here,” he explained. “It’s still research. It’s a lot better than it used to be.”
So far, Maricopa County has invested about $1.1 million in the project. The federal government has added about $2 million, while the University of Arizona contributes engineering and research.
In coming years, SMARTDrive officials hope to secure federal funding to install the technology in 3,000 Anthem residents’ cars, plus school buses, to collect more data on its performance.
Officials are excited to see how far the project has come since launching in 2007, with tests at one time run in a Maricopa County parking lot, said Saleem, the county transportation manager.
“U.S. DOT estimates that with connected-vehicle technology overall, it has the potential of reducing unimpaired crashes by 80 percent,” he said. “That’s the big benefit, and that’s why we are involved in this. For the county, public safety and mobility are our key goals. We want to deploy connected-vehicle technologies to provide that benefit to the public.”
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