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Imagine if cars could talk to one another or with traffic signals. Such conversations could help avoid collisions caused by fallible humans, or smooth out travel to save fuel costs and cut pollution.

Actually, the Utah Department of Transportation is involved with experiments seeking to develop such systems and perhaps transform driving forever.

Blaine Leonard, UDOT's director of intelligent-transportation systems, has some examples of what "connected-vehicle" technology could do if cars and facilities could automatically communicate by radio, Wi-Fi or cellphone.

He describes a scenario in which a driver is traveling down a congested freeway behind a big truck.

"Three vehicles ahead of the truck, some guy slams on his brakes, potentially causing a chain-reaction accident," he says. "You can't see it, but your car knows it has happened and gives you a warning to slow down or stop."

Or imagine heading for a green light at full speed. But a car on the crossroad — hidden from view by a building — is about to run the red light. Instant analysis of data from the moving cars and traffic signal warns "that guy is going to run the red. You ought to stop," Leonard says.

The vehicle could signal a warning by a shaking steering wheel, vibrating seat, voice technology or even automatic braking.

Leonard sees such advances coming in just a few years, and he is part of a nationwide technical group trying to work out details and standards. UDOT Executive Director Carlos Braceras is on the executive group overseeing such efforts among state and federal governments, auto manufacturers and others.

And some testing is about to come to Utah.


Truck tests • The Legislature this year adopted a new law, HB373, to allow testing that could save fuel and emissions by trucks.

Utah law usually requires vehicles to maintain two seconds of traveling time between each other. Rep. John Knotwell's measure allows semi trucks, with UDOT's permission, to travel as close as 30 feet to test connected-vehicle technology in rural areas.

Joshua Switkes is founder and CEO of Peloton Technology, a California-based company that hopes to partner with UDOT and trucking companies to take advantage of the law with some upcoming testing.

Peloton, Switkes says, has a system to allow two trucks to travel closely together by using a combination of vehicle-to-vehicle communications, radar-activated braking and some high-tech vehicle-control algorithms.

"The system is used like cruise control, with both drivers steering," he says. "But the direct-communication link between the two trucks enables the rear truck to automatically react to acceleration or braking by the front truck almost instantaneously."

The system allows the rear truck to draft off the one in front. Some early testing demonstrated trucks "can save between 7 and 12 percent of their fuel costs, which also reduces emissions," Leonard says. "That's an enormous thing."

Switkes adds, "While plans are still being developed, we expect to be testing in Utah later this year or early next" with trucking companies. "C.R. England has been especially helpful in our early development."

Steve Boyd, co-founder of Peloton and its vice president of external affairs, says that, thanks to HB373, "Utah is among the first in the country to move ahead in leadership regarding driver-assisted truck platooning."

Such technology could help existing freeways handle more traffic and avoid adding lanes, Leonard says. "Anything we can do to use technology to make the system run more efficiently is much cheaper than building new lanes."

Transit tests • UDOT is working on a second experiment in concert with Utah Transit Authority. Leonard says UTA has a good idea of what bus schedules are possible under normal road conditions, but "our goal is to try to help get their schedule more reliable and even shorten it a little so they can improve bus service."

Experiments envision that buses automatically would transmit information about their route, schedule and speed. "As it approaches a signalized intersection," Leonard explains, "it would communicate with the signal cabinet."

Software tested by the federal government could analyze if the bus is behind schedule and what else is happening at the intersection to determine if it "can afford to give you a green light earlier to try to get you back on schedule."

Leonard says UDOT hopes to work with UTA "to see if we can get a corridor that's 88 percent reliable to be, maybe, 94 percent reliable."

UDOT also is eying a third experiment. That one would put sensors on trucks in remote areas where little automated weather monitoring is available — such as on U.S. 40 in the Uinta Basin — to communicate data to UDOT headquarters.

"We could have a better handle on road conditions," especially in winter, Leonard says. It would help show when and where icing is occurring to help send out snow-removal crews or to issue warnings on UDOT's travel apps.

Advantages • Leonard sees UDOT as having some special advantages conducive to experimentation, including having 1,000 miles of its own fiber-optic cable along many highways — and access to another 1,000 miles owned by private telecommunications companies.

Those factors have allowed UDOT to connect directly to 88 percent of all traffic signals in the state, Leonard says, which means the agency can change signals remotely to help relieve congestion for big events now, and perhaps allow futuristic applications.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is making rules that are expected to require new passenger vehicles to include safety communications systems by about 2020. Such a move could make advances possible and rapid.

Leonard says such systems would transmit, every tenth of a second, information such as how big a car is, what direction it is traveling and how fast — to help avoid collisions or help make traffic flow more efficiently.

Early NHTSA tests "demonstrate that 80 percent of nonimpaired crashes could be mitigated with this technology," he says. That "may not totally prevent crashes, but would mitigate them. That's huge."

Braceras, UDOT's executive director, is excited about connected-vehicle technology. "It's going to be one of the key strategies to getting us to zero fatalities," he says, "and also to improving our mobility.

"If we have a three-lane highway now, we figure we can move about 1,800 vehicles per hour per lane in maximum conditions. I'm convinced we're going to be able to double that when vehicles can talk to vehicles and when infrastructure can talk to vehicles. We're going to have crash-less intersections."