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January 9, 2012 8:50 AM, EST
iTECH: Smart Roads May Be Reality by 2020
By Jonathan S. Reiskin, Associate News Editor

This article appears in the December 2011/January 2012 issue of iTECH, published in the Dec. 12 print edition of Transport Topics. Click here to subscribe today.

RALEIGH, N.C. — Two federal agencies that regularly deal with trucks have outlined ambitious plans that could make the nation’s highways nearly as busy with electronic communications as they are with vehicles, and doing so before the end of this decade.

Officials with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration updated fleet maintenance directors meeting here in September on plans for communications among trucks in motion, highway facilities, motor carriers and law enforcement about weather, truck parking, vehicle safety and traffic.

All of the component issues are known collectively as the Smart Roadside Initiative, and the major segment for safety is called Wireless Roadside Inspections. The presentation was part of the fall meeting of the Technology & Maintenance Council of American Trucking Associations. The programs are currently in limited testing as the agencies weigh their potential value.

Using WRI, FMCSA wants to inspect 85 million trucks and buses a year, said Chris Flanigan, an engineer for the agency.

“We want to focus on high-risk carriers . . . and we think frequent inspections will assure compliance,” Flanigan said.

He also said the wireless inspections will not be as comprehensive as a Class 1 roadside inspection, where the vehicle is stopped and a human inspector looks at the vehicle. Instead, in WRI the truck would transmit data for 34 to 46 seconds while in motion. Data would include topics such as driver hours of service and tire inflation that are tracked electronically through a vehicle telematics system.

“The will help us figure out if a vehicle should be pulled over for a full inspection,” Flanigan said. The two-step process is consistent with FMCSA’s goal of concentrating its resources on carriers and drivers with known safety problems.

“We want safe and legal carriers not to be hindered,” he said, adding that if problem carriers do not improve, FMCSA will generate “more revenue from scofflaws.”

Flanigan said three states have been testing the highway communication system: New York with Dedicated Short-Range Communications; Tennessee with Commercial Mobile Radio Service and geo-fencing; and Kentucky with Universal ID and e-mail.

Flanigan said Kentucky’s system has been slow, but the New York and Tennessee systems have worked better.

“We’re looking to make a go or no-go decision on a major national test” during the first half of the coming year, he said.

In general, FMCSA would notify the carrier and the truck that it wants safety information. The truck would transmit to an FMCSA roadside receiver, and after analysis, the agency would report findings back to the carrier.

Beyond safety inspections, Smart Roadside could provide drivers with useful intelligence on what they might encounter ahead.

Robert Kreeb, a NHTSA researcher, said his agency has been working with Volvo and Daimler Trucks on the same DSRC that New York has been using. This would be used for communications among trucks, ports, border crossings and intermodal yards.

Kreeb said NHTSA also envisions overpasses that transmit warnings to trucks about low clearances, and stop lights that give advance notice they will be turning red or already are.

“The goal is to provide time-specific information on infrastructure,” Kreeb said.

He also said there is initial research on this in Michigan by the state Department of Transportation, the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute and trucking company Con-way Inc., which has headquarters in Ann Arbor.

Kreeb said NHTSA wants to make pilot runs on the project in 2013, make a decision on vehicle requirements in 2014, and then implement the decision in conjunction with the Federal Highway Administration in 2015.

Other types of information that could be transmitted to trucks are weather and parking availability. Parking is an important part of hours-of-service compliance, Flanigan said, because when a driver’s hours are about to end, he or she has to find a place to stop.

Flanigan said early tests on parking have not worked well because it is hard to get an accurate count of spaces available.

“It’s no easy feat. We’ve tried imaging and magnetometers, but they didn’t work,” he said. FMCSA is now investigating several types of radar to make the counts, Flanigan said, adding that a report on the subject is expected in February 2013.