The University of Tennessee, Knoxville


From the Director

by Dave Clarke, P.E.

I've just returned from the 2015 Annual Meeting of the Transportation Research Board. This event is always held in Washington, DC during the month of January. It's always mystified me why the organizers choose Washington in January, as that's about the worst time weather-wise to be in that city. Fortunately, this year attendees were blessed not to have to experience snow, sleet, ice, or freezing temperatures. So, that was good.

For many of us (over 12,000 this year) who attend the Annual Meeting, 2015 was somewhat bittersweet. After nearly 60 years at three hotels in northwest Washington, the meeting moved to the huge Walter E. Washington Convention Center in the center city. Although TRB had really outgrown the old hotels, they seemed like home to me after over 30 years attending. You can't stop progress, I guess-the new venue is really superbly equipped for the large event that the TRB meeting has become. However, I had many good times with colleagues over the years in the old location and its nearby restaurants and watering holes. Ah, well, that's progress.

One difficulty in technology transfer is simply getting the message out to the practitioner. It may disappoint my academic peers, but not many highway agency managers or engineers read the scholarly journals in which we publish research findings. Research results need to be disseminated through trade journal articles, webinars, workshops, product demonstrations, and other means that directly target the potential end user. The Federal Highway Administration Resource Center actively promotes technologies resulting from research, and its web site, should be in every roadway agency's bookmarks. TTAP works closely with this center.

The hot topic this year at the TRB meeting was Connected Autonomous Vehicles (CAV). If you haven't heard this acronym before, be prepared, because you're going to be hearing it a lot over the next few years. A major push is underway to deploy technology that will permit cars to operate more efficiently and safely on our roadways.

Capacity is another issue that affects technology implementation. By capacity, I mean individuals or firms with knowledge, experience, and equipment to deploy the technology. For example, a simple innovation like the Safety Edge requires contractors to have pavers equipped with the system. Without clients that demand the system, contractors are unlikely to modify their equipment. Highway agencies, on the other hand, are often reluctant to dictate that the contractor community change accepted practice. Breaking this chicken-and-egg situation requires a champion willing to advocate the new approach. Such a champion can encourage the broader community to adopt the new way.

Space doesn't permit me to describe in this column all of the CAV concepts and potential benefits that proponents envision. Essentially, computers (already present) in motor vehicles can use on-board sensors (some already present) and communications with other vehicles and roadside devices (some already present) to help operate the vehicle. The degree to which the driver's tasks are taken by the on-board systems is a matter for research. Initially, we may use technology to safely reduce headways, keep the vehicle within its lane, vary cruise speeds automatically to keep pace with traffic, warn of impending conflicts, optimize fuel use, etc. Ultimately, it may be possible to have the vehicle assume many of the driver's tasks, but whether this is desirable or even practical remains to be seen.

Potential operational benefits of CAV are also attractive for roadway agencies. Having the vehicles communicate with the roadway could permit more efficient traffic operations by optimizing signal timing or ramp metering in real time. Traffic could be re-routed to minimize or avoid congestion. Closer headways could increase highway capacity, reducing the need for additional lanes.

While some of this may seem like Star Wars, the fact is that elements of CAV are working their way into both large trucks and cars. The vehicle manufacturers are solidly behind this. I spoke to a truck driver recently and was surprised to find just how much intelligence was already on-board his 2012 model tractor. It seems to be mostly the higher end autos that presently are being equipped with some CAV elements, but the technology will gradually filter through the product line.

So what does this mean for local roads? I'm not sure, to be frank. It could offer benefits, but also require additional investment. Regardless, it's a trend we need to be watching. CAV seems like the wave of the future. We need to be ready to catch it.

That's it for now. As always, if we can help, please don't hesitate to call or email. TTAP looks forward to assisting you. Be safe!


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