Short Road Goes a Long Way
The Virginia Smart Road advances automotive research while affording engineers unique career opportunities
By Tom Gibson, P.E.
Located a couple of miles from the Virginia Tech campus in the mountains of rural southwest Virginia, the Virginia Smart Road looks like a conventional road if you stand in the middle of it. But if you venture to either end of the 2.2-mile-long thoroughfare, you’ll see that it actually goes nowhere, at least for now.
The result of a grandiose plan conceived back in the 1980s, the road is a unique, state-of-the-art, closed test-bed research facility managed by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) and owned and maintained by the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT).
Perhaps the most unique thing about it is that it will someday serve dual purposes. Today, it offers researchers and product developers a laboratory for testing new transportation technologies. Eventually, it will also provide the motoring public a direct route between Interstate-81 and Blacksburg to facilitate a link between Roanoke, 25 miles east, and Virginia Tech.
Tom Dingus serves as director of the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI), which manages the Smart Road and research carried out on it, and a professor in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at Virginia Tech. He says the road actually goes a long way… in improving transportation technology, that is. “It has exceeded everybody’s expectations.” In 2013, the Smart Road logged the highest number of paid hours of research since its inception. “It’s getting more and more popular.” Over two dozen major non-proprietary research projects use the Smart Road for testing in a given year. Participating organizations include heavy hitters like car manufacturers, the Department of Transportation, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and the Federal Highway Administration Research and Innovative Technology Administration
The Smart Road features two paved lanes and three bridges, one of which ranks as the tallest state-maintained bridge in Virginia at 175 feet. It also has a signalized intersection; in-pavement sensors for moisture, temperature, strain, vibration, and weighing-in-motion; a lighting test bed; and a half-mile-long weather-making section that produces rain, snow, and fog for testing. The list of features goes on: an on-site data acquisition system, a high-bandwidth fiber network, a differential GPS base station, and traffic signal phase and timing using remote control.
Zac Doerzaph, director of the Center for Advanced Automotive Research at VTTI, says, “The Smart Road provides a unique facility for testing transportation systems because it is limited access for research yet is built to the standards of an actual interstate.” It also has allowed him to enjoy a fulfilling career. “My coworkers at VTTI are practically members of my family. This is an amazing place to work both personally and professionally. At the end of the day, I take the greatest pleasure in knowing that the work we do has a direct positive influence on society; we save lives!”
VTTI offices house the Smart Road Control Room used to schedule and oversee on-road research, and dispatchers monitor the road from here. Researchers can observe highway traffic and driver performance using surveillance cameras. Engineers can also control the lighting and the weather on the road.
To operate the Smart Road, VTTI employs a team of multidisciplinary researchers, engineers, technicians, support staff, and students. They recruit electrical and mechanical engineering students as graduate research assistants to serve as employees. According to Dingus, “We have over 100 undergraduates that work here doing research projects. That really helps Virginia Tech students get good jobs having that practical experience.” Jared Bryon adds, “A good number get hired full time, myself included.”
Indeed, Bryson received his BSME from Virginia Tech, and he went straight to work at VTTI in 1998. The 38-year-old grew up in the suburbs of Washington, DC and Atlanta. As Smart Road Mechanical Systems Group Leader in VTTI’s Center for Technology Development, he oversees the mechanical side of the Hardware Operations Group. “My counterparts and I develop all the systems that go into our studies, whether that be the electronics, mechanical mountings, devices used in conjunction with the vehicles, or infrastructure to support different research projects,” he relates. “The researchers find projects to bid on, and if they’re awarded, we have to make them work.”
Over the years, Bryson has developed a perspective on the intricate role mechanical engineers play in the Smart Road’s research activities. “We test on everything from bicycles, motorcycles, cars, and SUVs to pickup trucks, commercial vehicles, and tractor trailers. With the sheer breadth and varied nature of proposals coming in, there’s always some aspect that has to be modified or created to facilitate each study. Everything from body work to the manufacture of fixtures and parts to the design of the actual equipment to test.”
The weather-making system features a 500,000-gallon water tank on the ground below the road that feeds 75 25-foot-high towers mounted on the road above it with a 400-horsepower pump pressurizing the water. These can create snow, fog, freezing rain and heavy downpours. The rain and fog setups were developed in house, while the snow towers are off-the-shelf versions like those at a ski resort.
They use city water and fill the tank at times of low demand, so it acts as a buffer against the huge demands of the system. Two 700-horsepower, 3-stage centrifugal air compressors generate compressed air that runs to each of the towers, atomizing the water for fog- and snowmaking.
Operating a system like this has its rewards, according to Bryson. “It becomes a place to test any new and crazy idea to see what we can make work. It’s fun and exciting from that aspect. Getting to make weather; it’s fun to go out there and crank the system up wide open and see what we can do.”
Technologies have made it to market
Having been in operation for 20 years, the Smart Road has accrued a list of accomplishments that have made their way into today’s production vehicles. Doerzaph says, “We have influenced technologies such as forward collision warnings, backing cameras, and crash imminent braking – wherein the vehicle will automatically apply the brakes to avoid a crash.”
Dingus reports, “Active safety systems in vehicles is the latest thing. For example, we do a lot of work with 11 different car companies, the biggest one General Motors. If you look at the new Cadillacs that came out last year, they have half a dozen of these active safety systems, all of which were tested on the Smart Road before they were deployed. That’s a way we have a pretty big impact.”
Active safety systems include any system that helps you avoid a crash, in contrast with a passive safety system that protects you in a crash, like air bags or seatbelt restraints. These are things like forward collision warnings, automatic braking, backup cameras, and blind spot warnings you see in the mirrors.
Bryson points out another technology pioneered on the Smart Road: adaptive cruise control. This uses forward-looking radar to detect the speed and distance of the vehicle ahead of it. It maintains the vehicle’s preset speed but automatically adjusts the speed to maintain a proper distance between vehicles in the same lane.
A couple of notable technologies are being developed now that should follow this same path. “Connected vehicles is really the large buzz in developing projects. It’s a very open field right now, and that’s exciting in that we’re trying to investigate different directions it could take,” Bryson reveals.
Doerzaph, 36, has made a specialty of connected vehicle technology. The native of Nevada, City, CA has followed a similar path to Bryson, except he got his BSME from the University of Idaho and then came to Virginia Tech for his masters and doctorate degrees in industrial and systems engineering. “In a way, the Smart Road enabled my career,” he says.
His center develops and tests prototype systems that focus on the integration of driver and vehicle to improve driver and occupant safety. “Although we have conducted a wide-range of research ranging from fatigue evaluation to infotainment acceptance, the majority of our Smart Road studies involve testing and evaluating collision avoidance and driver assistance systems,” he relates.
Connected vehicles use low-latency dedicated short-range communications (DSRC) and GPS to predict crashes and warn the driver. Doerzaph points out that his thesis focused on a DSRC-enabled application to stop intersection violations, and he performed his research on the Smart Road.
In simple terms, connected vehicles are equipped with radios, so they can communicate with each other as well as the infrastructure. If a car is in a collision, it can broadcast that it just experienced a high-G load, indicative of a crash or incident, and all the vehicles around it would know there is a problem. The processing power on every vehicle would figure out if it’s in the path and what action the vehicle should take, such as alerting the driver or applying the brakes and bringing the vehicle to a stop.
According to Doerzaph, “While there is still work to do, most of the major technology hurdles for connected vehicles have been overcome. Some interesting challenges remain in determining the best methods to deploy a reliable and secure system that will be interoperable for the long term.”
He says the National Highway Traffic Administration has started the process of considering a mandate for the DSRC technology. In addition, General Motors has announced plans to include DSRC technology on the 2017 model year Cadillac. “These two exciting developments point to the possibility of widespread deployment in the coming years,” Doerzaph says. “This could have a large safety benefit over time as the technology proliferates and eventually provides other benefits such as improved mobility and reduced environmental impact.”
Autonomous vehicles coming
As another emerging technology, Dingus says active safety systems serve as subsystems to get to not only safer and more intelligent cars, but also eventually automated cars. “The next generation is working on lane-centering systems, where you can actually drive hands off the wheel, and if the car sees an obstacle in front, it will brake to avoid a crash. Those are coming out very soon; in the next few years, they’ll be in production.”
Roadway lighting is another area that has come under evaluation, with some unique twists. “We may actually do something where a connected vehicle could trigger rolling lights, and these come on at the appropriate time to light the highway, not running at, say, at 4 a.m. if there’s no traffic,” Bryson reports. This would bring energy savings as well as increased safety.
Planning for the Smart Road actually began as far back as 1985. In early 1992, the Virginia Department of Transportation began designing it, working closely with the Federal Highway Administration and Virginia Tech’s Center for Transportation Research. Groundbreaking took place in 1997, and construction on the current section was completed in 2002.
Where will the Virginia Smart Road go from here? The timetable for extending the road to become part of the public transportation system will depend on growing traffic demands on the Route 460 Bypass and state and federal transportation funding. It will eventually become 6 miles of 4-lane road designed and built in a series of test beds with the ability to shut down two lanes in off-peak hours for testing.
As it continues to play out, this unique public-private-academic project should continue to advance transportation technology for years to come. And it should continue to create unique career paths for engineers following in the foot steps of Dingus, Bryson, and Doerzaph.
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