Colorado’s Connected Vehicle Plan to Make a Ski-Country Highway Safer

Interstate 70 in the Rocky Mountains

Interstate 70 in the Rocky Mountains Shutterstock

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

“This project will answer a lot of questions we need to answer in order to show people how this can be done,” says Tom Gebhardt, president of Panasonic Automotive Systems Company of America.

DENVER — Coloradans for decades have dreamed of a ski train that would transport them from their Front Range homes into the nearby mountain adventureland free from the hassles of driving. They’re now getting a connected-vehicle technology alternative.

The Colorado Department of Transportation has teamed with Panasonic on the latest installment of its ambitious high-tech “ RoadX ” transportation-update plan. The project for Interstate 70 is a vehicle-to-infrastructure information-sharing platform that will blanket the 144-mile I-70 mountain corridor with communication nodes that planners say will bring new-level advanced notification about conditions to networked automobiles and their drivers—and with it long-sought order to one of the nastiest commutes in the country.

“We were chosen by CDOT to prove out this technology,” Tom Gebhardt, president of Panasonic Automotive Systems Company of America , told Route Fifty in an interview. “This project will answer a lot of questions we need to answer in order to show people how this can be done.”

The company has done vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure related projects in Japan and Finland and there are small related projects going on in North America, but the I-70 project will be more comprehensive. It will roll out in stages over the next five years, with trial runs set to begin this winter.

Andrew Krok at CNET this week wrote that CDOT and Panasonic were embarking on a “trial by fire.”

Yes, that’s the point, said Gebhardt. The project’s crews will be working the stretch of interstate that birthed a popular state bumper sticker, which reads: “Friends don’t let friends drive I-70.” It’s a rugged, winding weekend-getaway road that stretches from high-plains Denver to high-country Glenwood Springs, from which roads in every direction lead to the state’s resort and backcountry playgrounds.

If the technology works the way supporters say it will, traffic should flow reliably and more safely, putting an end to the era of routine wipeouts, stop-and-start turn and tunnel slowdowns and bumper-to-bumper backups—all of which play out against the dread sound of emergency crew sirens.

Amy Ford, CDOT spokesperson, said people have been thinking about the project as a version of the realtime traffic-monitoring app Waze , “except on steroids.”

“You’ll have all this data from all these different nodes—the cars and the infrastructure—and it’s shooting up to the [data] cloud and down again almost instantaneously and being fully digested. You need a new kind of platform that can handle that,” she said.

New cars come equipped with the communication technology the fully-connected corridor will require. Drivers of older vehicles will have to fit their cars with devices.

“This will start to build the bridge to 2025, when as much as 10 percent of the vehicles [in production] will be autonomous,” Gebhardt said.

Most of the high-speed wireless communication and Internet of Things device-to-device communication at the center of the project is now commonplace, he points out.

“The thing about this that amazes me, though, is the accelerating speed of development, how far and fast it’s being applied,” he said. “Three or four years ago, no one was thinking autonomous vehicles would be a regular sight on the roads. Two or three years from now, they’ll be all around us.”

Last week, news outlets around the country ran video of a driverless trailer truck that hauled a shipment of Budweiser 120 miles from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs.

“That’s where we’re at already,” said Ford. “So, how does CDOT stay on top of it? That’s what we’re looking ahead with in the RoadX plan. Imagine that truck not just going by what it can ‘see’ but also by what all the vehicles in front and behind it can see and what the roads and bridges all along the way can see.”

Ford said Panasonic was an obvious choice for the I-70 project.

“We were looking for a company that already had deep ties to the auto industry so that the platform we build will be able to scale up. The idea is that this will become a model for the nation. That’s why we’re talking with other state departments of transportation to find out how you get a system that works across Kansas, Colorado and Utah—so it doesn’t fall apart for drivers once they cross state lines.”

Panasonic is a leader in developing smart city and smart transportation technology and has also played a high-profile role over the last few years in Colorado’s smart-tech evolution. Panasonic partnered with Denver to develop the “transportation development corridor” along the 23-mile rail line that stretches between Denver’s international airport and downtown Union Station. Panasonic sited its new Enterprise Solutions division headquarters along the rail line and, in partnership with local governments, is building up the area around its headquarters as a clean-power, information age community hub.

Gebhardt said the Enterprise Solutions division will act as a sort of “control tower” for the I-70 project, steering state offices to the relevant Panasonic teams as work progresses.

Ford said the I-70 project will underline the benefits of the RoadX approach to transportation development. The project will be remarkably low-impact to drivers as well as relatively low-cost, which are major priorities in Colorado as elsewhere — and maybe more so.

Colorado is a low-tax, high-growth state . Between 2014 and 2016, Colorado was second only to oil-booming North Dakota in population growth by percentage. Colorado has added 400,000 residents to its rolls since 2010, hitting a population of 5.4 million last year.

“Research says you can quadruple the capacity of existing infrastructure with this kind of technology,” Ford said. “It gets you thinking, what if your new highway lane isn’t made out of asphalt but out of data.”

Ford adds that, even if the I-70 project runs as high as $60 million, adding a new physical lane on that stretch of the highway — which would likely mean tunnel work as well — would cost $4 billion. She said a ski train would cost $17 billion.

“We’ve done the math. Our whole budget is $1.4 billion a year.”

Ford said, the smart corridor will deliver the results travelers and officials seek. Crashes could be decreased by as much as 80 percent, which reduces injury and death, but also significantly reduces traffic congestion. Sixty percent of congestion in the state is caused by car crashes, a figure that tracks with national data.

Editor's Note: In the original version of this story, Panasonic's Tom Gebhardt was quoted to say that, in 2025, as much as 10 percent of vehicles on the road will be autonomous. Panasonic wrote to clarify that Gebhardt was referring to figures published by Deloitte that predict 10 percent of vehicles in production will be autonomous by 2025. The story has been edited to reflect that distinction.

John Tomasic is a journalist based in Boulder, Colorado.

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