Connecting state and local government leaders
The Tennessee city is planning to upgrade nearly 100 intersections with gigabit-speed fiber broadband to test autonomous vehicles.
In the next two years, academic researchers in Chattanooga, Tennessee, envision upgrading around 100 intersections with connected vehicle infrastructure, after several years of managing a “living testbed” in the city’s downtown.
That testbed, which leverages Chattanooga’s gigabit-speed fiber broadband network, uses various sensors to monitor traffic and help city leaders make real-time decisions about signal timings and other measures to enhance safety. The testbed partners—the city and the Center for Urban Informatics and Progress (CUIP) at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga—recently announced they would invest in LiDAR technology to help promote traffic safety.
The testbed began as a 1.2-mile section of street downtown after receiving funding from the National Science Foundation. Mina Sartipi, CUIP’s founding director, said it is more of a sandbox that allows innovative technologies to be tested on a small scale to improve street safety and public health.
CUIP also has created a digital twin of the city, which allows it to measure how changes to traffic signal timings or the addition of lanes affects traffic. Sartipi said that digital twin will be especially helpful in Chattanooga’s 100-intersection expansion of connected vehicle technology, as it will allow researchers to test decisions before implementing them in the real world.
In addition to the connected infrastructure, the city will soon roll out an autonomous vehicle shuttle to carry passengers around the testbed and other parts of downtown. A spokesperson said in an email it is among the first “real-world applications of AV for a mid-sized university in a city our size.”
Researchers are most interested in finding out how connected infrastructure can improve AV safety, not only downtown but also on the highway, Sartipi said. In partnership with the Tennessee Department of Transportation, a 2.5-mile section of highway with an on- and off-ramp to the testbed will also be outfitted with sensors and other technology to explore improving AV safety on highways.
Those initiatives all help the overall goal of making Chattanooga a “citywide testbed for future mobility,” Sartipi said.
AVs have been the subject of much hype and high expectations over the past decade or more, and headlines about safety incidents have raised public distrust of the technology. Fully autonomous vehicles are probably decades away, Sartipi said, but a “higher level of automation” where technology improves safety for drivers and other road users is a more near-term goal.
But before fully or even partially autonomous vehicles become a reality, Sartipi said the roadway infrastructure must be able to communicate with those vehicles and instantaneously make decisions to help avoid accidents or fatalities.
“I'm a firm believer that connectivity should come first,” she said.
Researchers in Chattanooga have a leg up on much of the country on connectivity with the city’s fiber network, which is run in partnership with its municipal utility Electric Power Board and produces speeds in some places up to 25 Gigabits per second in some places.
In the CUIP testbed, information is sent back and forth between connected vehicles and a data center using the city’s fiber network, and Sartipi said academics are now working with officials in nearby Nashville to test the capabilities of their own fiber network.
Chattanooga’s quantum network, the first to be deployed commercially and built on the existing fiber infrastructure, also holds a great deal of promise for transportation, Sartipi said. While use cases for the city’s quantum network are still being explored, its computing power could advance transit cybersecurity and speed data processing, especially as more intersections get connected and need faster data transmission.
“It might not happen today, but this is what the world of research is,” she said. “We have this capability; we have this amazing opportunity and infrastructure that we are going to be leveraging.”
Crucial in the success of the testbed has been collaboration with the city, Sartipi said, as well as the willingness of university students to participate in various projects.
For example, one group of students defended a senior project in front of members of the Chattanooga City Council and have continued to update lawmakers on its progress, something that Sartipi said demonstrates how universities and their host cities can build real-world applications to help local government and residents. “Students at the universities are our main assets,” she said.
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