When many people think of the word “road” today, they think of busy, congested lines of traffic and long commutes. Perhaps they think of potholes and crumbling shoulders. If they live in a location that has well-maintained or little-used roads, perhaps they think of an idyllic two-lane road winding through the trees between distant towns. For many of us, roads are something we reluctantly use nearly every day to get between point A and point B. Nearly everyone would agree that many improvements can be made to our existing highway infrastructure. But what if those improvements could be so advanced, they would fundamentally shift not only how we use roads, but also how we think about them? What if the mundane road we use on a daily basis could be upgraded in the same way we have upgraded mobile devices, computers, or vehicles? What if roads could be made “smart,” that is, made to be a part of our interconnected world through the incorporation of sensors, feedback loops, Internet of Things (IoT) networks, and a host of other emergent technologies that would enable our roads to be not only navigable, but insightful?
These changes, and more, are what people are referring to when they discuss “smart roads.” This term is used to describe a future road that will be increasingly common in the years to come. Current efforts are underway to incorporate roadways into the Internet of Things. By doing so, we will have unprecedented knowledge about real-time conditions on the road, as well as the physical state of the road itself. Combined, these will provide us with heretofore unimagined control over how we use our roads. This article will discuss some of the potential features of smart roads, in particular focusing on how we will use technology to make roads safer, more intelligent, and more connected than ever before. Perhaps most surprising is that smart roads have the potential to be a very real phenomenon in the near future. Several European countries have already begun to build smart roads. Additionally, as we will discuss in more depth, in the United States we have begun retrofitting existing road infrastructure with IoT technology, through the placement of intelligent fixed and mobile weather and road sensors. As the technology and demand for future roads grow, so too will the presence of smart road systems.
The Internet of Things and Roadways
Incorporating roadways into the IoT network may be one of the most difficult aspects for many people to imagine when they begin to think of smart roads. This is because current roadways have little connection to how we use the internet today. Roadways are inherently “dumb” systems that have little to no connection to networked devices. Up until recently, roadways were built solely with safety, reliability, and cost effectiveness in mind. However, new efforts are being made to build road systems that incorporate IoT networks and data gathering tools to create road networks where drivers can be smart on the road. Many roads have begun to be retrofitted with sensors that enable them to gather the critical information needed to keep our road infrastructure up and running. State and local Department of Transportation agencies now rely on sensors to monitor changing road conditions and traffic patterns.
Future roads would take this a step further, by incorporating interconnectivity into their design parameters. More robust and intelligent data sensors, and the analytics to support them, will enable future roads to be constantly monitored for changes. This information could then be acted upon in an efficient and rapid manner. These target levels of interconnectivity will give transportation managers the information they need most, in real-time. This will allow them to make more informed and intelligent decisions when it comes to road maintenance, usage, and features.
While retrofitting is allowing us to incorporate beneficial aspects of IoT technology into current road systems, future roads are being designed from the ground up around complete interconnectivity with IoT networks. For example, future roads are anticipated to be constructed from solar-friendly material, meaning they will be able to capture and harness solar energy in order to power various devices and features. One notable feature you can expect to see coming from this change is charging stations for electric cars, particularly as we move away from vehicles that burn fossil fuels. A second feature powered by future road surfaces would be electric roadway heating. This would be of particular importance in areas that experience heavy snow or particularly brutal winters. Department of Transportation agencies in these locations spend billions of dollars a year working to keep their roads free of ice and snow. Future roads would be capable of keeping roads dry more efficiently than traditional methods of road clearing and de-icing, saving money while also creating safer driving conditions.
Solar surfaces for future roads would also be a necessity to power the many devices needed to ensure smart roads stay efficient and safe. Integrated automated weather stations and traffic pattern sensors would be foremost among these devices. Currently these devices, whether vehicle or roadside mounted, often utilize solar capture technology to power themselves. Future roads would further incorporate powering these devices into the roadway itself, while connecting them to a larger network of connected sensors and devices. These two devices, automated weather stations and traffic sensors, and their unique applications to future roads, combined would account for a significant increase in the safety and usability of our roadways. These devices are the backbone supporting integration of roadways into the Internet of Things.
Although solar powered roadways are still far from becoming a commonplace reality in the United States, there are a number of smaller, yet still crucial, changes that are gaining momentum in connecting roadways to the Internet of Things. Efforts to overhaul roadways to increase both safety and efficiency are a top priority of Department of Transportation agencies around the country. Foremost among these is an effort to more accurately capture and convey real-time road conditions and weather data.
Smart Roads and Weather
When we discuss utilizing the Internet of Things in future roads, we aren’t talking about a few sensors on light poles or guardrails. Many current road systems across the country have fixed weather or traffic sensors located at points along them. Rather, future roads will have thousands of nodes from which they will collect data.
Currently, one of the most popular initiatives to incorporate IoT technology into roadway systems is occurring in weather mapping and prediction. Local, regional, and even national transportation agencies have been relying on Road Weather Information Systems (RWIS) up until this point. RWIS are broad networks that consist of stationary collection points used to gather a wide range of on the ground weather and road condition data. These systems collect local weather, atmospheric conditions, and pavement conditions. Additionally, some RWIS sensors are used to monitor the water levels of nearby rivers, streams, or lakes in order to anticipate dangerous flooding conditions.
The drawback of the current RWIS networks is that they can only collect data at fixed points where sensors are placed. This leaves gaps in knowledge about road and weather conditions that must be filled. Most commonly, transportation managers fill in these gaps by using spatial inference to predict what weather or road conditions are between RWIS sensors. Additionally, transportation managers will also use weather forecasts to attempt to predict how weather will affect roadways within their network. Each of these steps creates a delay from when information is collected and when it can be used. When dealing with changing weather patterns, delays of minutes or hours can render actionable data obsolete. Although RWIS networks have been an important step in improving the safety and efficiency of roadways in the United States, they fail to provide the breadth of data necessary to give a complete understanding of current road conditions at any given time.
Future roads will take these data collection and mapping efforts a step forward in both scope and complexity. First, future roads will incorporate a larger network of automated weather stations. Efforts to reduce the form factor of current RWIS while increasing the complexity of data collected and the speed with which it is made available have already been realized in the private sector. The result is a smart weather professional weather station that can collect atmospheric, road, traffic, and weather data and instantly upload that information to cloud networks.
Additionally, smart weather professional weather stations will capitalize on a second trend in future roads: improved vehicle-to-road and vehicle-to-vehicle connectivity. Portable weather stations placed on vehicles will act as mobile connection points for hyper-local weather and road data. This information can then be transmitted to smart weather professional weather stations along the roadway. Vehicle-mounted automated weather stations communicating with smart weather professional weather stations will effectively close the gaps left by traditional RWIS deployments. This will give transportation managers a complete view of road and weather conditions across their entire system.
Real-time Visualizations and Actionable Data
One of the key areas that differentiates the deployment of smartweather professional weather stations along with vehicle mounted portable weather stations is the level of interconnectedness in these operations. Smart weather professional weather stations can communicate with data cloud collection systems via wireless, cellular, or satellite data. They are data collection nodes of both weather and atmospheric conditions. They also collect data from passing portable weather stations and other automated weather stations along roadways. Once this data is collected and transmitted, it is processed through robust analytics systems, filtered down, and rendered into usable visualizations. At this point it is sent to a data dashboard system customized for each agency or transportation manager’s particular operation. All of this is conducted in real-time, so that transportation managers are no longer working with outdated data. Additionally, customized data dashboard systems allow transportation managers to determine what information is critical to their operation, and display that data in a manner that is easy to grasp at a moments notice.
Depending on the needs of the local or government institutions in charge of overseeing roads, transportation manager’s will be able to collect huge amounts of raw data, and then act upon this data proactively rather than reactively. Customizable data dashboards that display real-time data from their network of both portable and fixed automated weather stations will provide a greater breadth of up-to-date weather data across the entire road network. This type of system creates more actionable data for transportation manager’s, and allows them to more effectively deploy resources as conditions change.
At the most basic level, future roads will realize efforts to generate unprecedented amounts of actionable data about hyper-local weather, road, and atmospheric conditions. Additionally, smart roads will provide critical information regarding road use and traffic patterns, and allow transportation managers to ease congestion more effectively and efficiently. The collection of road and weather data, vehicle-to-road, and vehicle-to-vehicle data will expand our scope of knowledge about how our roadways are used. Most importantly, this data will then be used to proactively make roads safer by addressing dangerous road conditions before they happen. Real-time vehicle-to-road and vehicle-to-vehicle data will pinpoint where and how congestion and accidents occur, and allow traffic managers the means to preempt these conditions.
Planning for the Future
Additionally, the net effect of this data over the long term will be smarter road planning and building. Civil engineers will be able to use the data generated by future roads to model the safest and most efficient road systems, and incorporate this information into future patterns of growth. Car manufacturer’s will also be able to use the data gathered from future roads to design safer cars that more effectively communicate with both roads and other vehicles. The creation of feedback loops between the data generated on future roads and the design of both roads and vehicles will perhaps be one of the most lasting effects of smart road technology. Ultimately, the incorporation of future roads into the Internet of Things will allow all of us to have a safer, more reliable driving experience, both in the short and long term.