Embracing the smart road

Roads & Civil Works Magazine looks at intelligent transport systems technology in action and how these concepts can be best adapted to help optimise Australia’s road network.New Zealand’s first smart motorway began operations in the middle of June this year.

The section of State Highway 1 between Ngauranga and the Terrace Tunnel is Wellington’s busiest section of road, used by around 90,000 vehicles a day.

The ‘smart motorway’ utilises intelligent transportation systems (ITS) – advanced technology to optimise the network, reduce congestion and improve safety overall. In essence, the smart motorway helps to improve these aspects by carefully controlling the flow of vehicles.

Detectors and radars count vehicles and measure their speeds, while the smart system calculates the rate at which the road is getting congested, taking into account what’s likely to happen based on traffic information.

Greg Thomas, Chief Architect at global information technology firm Unisys, who is based in Wellington, says the New Zealand Transport Agency’s smart highway is a great proof of concept for successful implementation of ITS. “It’s been running effectively for the past three to four months. What I see even now, as a driver, is the impact it has had on travel times,” he says.

“The trial gives the road operator the ability to look at different scenarios and where the network can become stuck.

Off the back of the Wellington project, Mr. Thomas asserts that the country’s larger cities, such as Auckland, would be appropriate locations for similar ITS trials. “There are big drivers in this space, and we’re seeing similar things in Asia,” he adds.

Australasia, as a whole, is making progress in adopting ITS practices, but to best optimise its potential Mr. Thomas says there are some hurdles still to overcome.

“We’re seeing growth in this area, and we’re starting to see ITS become more prevalent as the technology matures,” he says. “The big challenge to solve right now is to do with real time data.

“I believe we’re starting to see some capabilities in ITS technology that are making real-time data analysis more of a reality. Data analysis can be restricted to a day or a week-long period but, with complete connectivity in real time, we can see the entire traffic flow of the network as it happens.”

Mr. Thomas says that 10 years ago, the main application ITS technology was seen in was static infrastructure, such as gantries and signage. The introduction of Bluetooth technology more recently is a precursor to being able to monitor a road network in complete real time.

The Smart Motorway project in Wellington, for example, takes real time feeds from vehicles on the network using Bluetooth sensors, helping someone to monitor traffic flow and take measures to avoid congestion. “Four years ago we would have struggled to put together something that comprehensive,” he adds. “Applications such as Google Maps have begun to collect that kind of data, and it’s now about gathering that information where it can then be used on the network.”

This kind of information can help to inform commuters on their best journey route based on real time and current traffic conditions.

“I think this information is going to become increasingly important to utilise,” says Mr. Thomas. “That is where I see a lot of flow-on effects, especially in productivity and time efficiencies for the public.

“The industry does need to drive ITS, especially as people will focus on different aspects of what real time data can be used for,” he says. Road agencies, on one hand, may focus on optimising the network and making it more efficient. For transport companies, couriers or road infrastructure contractors, it may help inform decisions on projects. “People are collecting information and they’re doing that for specific purposes. They’re not necessarily seeing the entire value of that information,” he says. “There are a lot of opinions out there and options we need to think about.”

He says the infrastructure sector needs to start looking at how autonomous technology will affect the network, as well as where and how these vehicles will connect with and benefit from real time data and ITS. “From where we sit, we see a lot of things going on in this space within government agencies,” says Mr. Thomas. “It’s all about the data and how we use it effectively and intelligently.”

Building Victoria’s smart network

Road agencies in Australia are adopting similar processes and integrating said ITS technology into its networks. VicRoads is proactive in this space, and is currently exploring how ITS can be utilised for the future of the state’s road network.

The Victorian Government runs an ITS grants program and this year it selected three concepts to trial. “The first one is looking at implementing road infrastructure on EastLink for autonomous vehicles. This infrastructure is needed to support autonomous or connected vehicles as the population grows,” explains Wayne Harvey, Manager – Smart Journey Systems at VicRoads.

“The other technology we’re trialling is to do with improving efficiency and looking at how ITS can be used to help improve tram travel on arterial road networks, on which we’re collaborating with ARRB, Yarra Trams and La Trobe University.”

The idea is to fit the ITS technology to the tram to monitor and prioritise the trams on the network. However, Mr. Harvey explains it’s still early days for this particular idea. “One of the difficulties we’ve encountered is getting a system that does that accurately allowing for the loading and offloading of passengers,” he says. “It’s about trying to improve system integration.”

The third concept being trialled is geographic intelematics technology. Through connectivity between road infrastructure and a vehicle, the trial system helps to keep traffic flowing by coordinating the speed of the vehicles with upcoming traffic light units. In short, the system is exploring how to provide a greenwave for vehicles by improving the chances of a it getting a green light all the way along a journey.

All these ITS concepts fall under VicRoads’ extensive ITS technology roadmap, which is exploring more than 48 different technologies from around the world and how they may have a part to play in the state’s roadmap to autonomy.

“We’re also having a look at what’s available now and is coming out in regards to vehicle technology – advance driver assist, dynamic cruise control – and what we can do with that information and leverage those technologies,” says Mr. Harvey.

He explains that to adopt such ITS solutions requires a few major steps. “We have to install extra infrastructure to enable the network to communicate with the vehicles using it.”

VicRoads is currently undertaking a pilot project on the use of extra roadside units on Clarendon Street in South Melbourne to gather information on a small scale, both to gain insight into the network and how it can be best optimised in that particular area.

A significant element for the progression of ITS technology lies in legislative changes to allow for autonomous technology, a process in which VicRoads is active.

While trialling the actual technology and establishing a roadmap towards autonomy are exciting new steps in optimising Victoria’s road network, Mr. Harvey asserts that some elements of ITS technology have been around for a long time. “The early stages of adaptive signage was probably the foundation for ITS,” he says. “As the technology has begun to evolve, we’ve started to pick up the functions that are available,” he says. “Managed motorways (or smart motorways) have been a very specific focus for us since about 2003.”

He says the next major step in developing ITS technology on the state’s road network is exploring how the vehicles actually communicate with the infrastructure, which VicRoads is looking at through its Dynamic Speed Trial. The pilot began in July, running between High Street in Ashburton and Glenferrie Road in Toorak on the Monash Freeway. The trial used existing technology on the freeway, including CCTV, road sensors and electronic signs, to change speed limits, when conditions allow meaning motorists could increase their speed from 80 to 100 kilometres per hour when safe to do so.

The six-month pilot tested three different phases: phase one varies speeds at night, phase two includes night and off-peak periods such as weekends, and phase three runs 24 hours a day, excluding peak periods.

If successful, the Victorian Government will look at rolling out this technology on other managed motorways across Melbourne.

The pilot will complement the Monash Speed Trial – a trial that sees trucks travel at 90-kilometres-per-hour along a 10-kilometre section of the Monash Freeway between Huntingdale and Jacksons Roads.

Mr. Harvey says that while the speed trials are seeing some positive results, there are many parameters to consider in the process, including road geometry, environmental conditions and safety. “What we’re also doing is trying to automate these managed motorways, but at the moment we still need individuals to monitor what is happening on the network,” he says.

Mr. Harvey says to reach the next stage of ITS development in Victoria we need to look at what is happening nationally and internationally, and share that knowledge and those experiences. “We certainly look at what is going on in the ITS space around the world. We’ve been monitoring the European Truck Platooning trial that the Netherlands is running and the impacts that would have on using that technology from a road network perspective,” he says. VicRoads’ freeway management system using innovative on-ramp signalling systems are being explored in five US department of transport areas.

Mr. Harvey agrees the adoption and implementation of effective ITS technology is a shared challenge, especially for Australian road agencies.

Big Data is one area that will greatly influence the adoption ITS technology, which needs a shared approach as that information will be used to help map out an efficient network with better integration between trams, trains and cars. “It’s one area we’ve got to do more work in. We’ve got to use these tools effectively, but we’ve got to be open and transparent about it,” says Mr. Harvey.

He says there’s some more work to do in regards to spatial technology and the need to use more sophisticated mapping tools to be able to embrace big data.

Mr. Harvey says it’s hard to look beyond a few years in regards to ITS technology and its relation with autonomous technology. “With ITS, you can look five to seven years ahead, but every week systems coming are out that are being developed elsewhere, which you want to utilise.” He adds that the types of vehicles currently on Australian roads will be in operation over the next 10 years plus, which needs to be taken into account in adopting emerging ITS technology.

“What we’ve got to do is continue to work with industry, car manufacturers and transport associations so we can better leverage off new ITS technologies,” says Mr. Harvey. “ITS technology is continually changing and we need to keep updated with how it will impact road infrastructure and the network.”

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