Tech could redefine car talk

If the Federal Highway Administration's research goes well, cars could one-day control traffic signals instead of the other way around.

The agency is exploring the use of in-car wireless technologies to manage traffic flow. Research concepts involve installing vehicle devices that would allow cars to communicate with the highway and with other vehicles, according to a recent request for information.

Officials refer to the multi-year project as Vehicle Infrastructure Integration for Mobility (MVII).

The agency envisions cars that can transmit alerts to stop lights about vehicle location and speed, forcing the lights to adapt to traffic demands. For instance, during rush hour, cars would inform the traffic signal to alter the intervals between light changes, agency officials said. The traffic signal would then shorten the red lights and prolong the green lights to process cars more quickly. The idea is that by the time the car reaches the signal, the light would be green.

The roadways would also talk to cars. Technologies built into the transportation infrastructure would send alerts, such as 'please accelerate briskly, the traffic jam is ending', 'stop tailgating', 'slow down to match speed of traffic', or 'caution ' icy road ahead.' FHWA's goal is to reduce congestion and gaps in traffic flow.

Other plans include personalized speed limits, where FHWA technologies would feed variable speed limits to cars when the vehicles pass through construction sites, school zones or bad weather.

Last summer, federal agency officials received comments from outside stakeholders through a request for information. The officials wanted feedback on the specific concepts and the possible benefits, along with suggestions for evaluation methods.

Close to 20 individuals replied, including university researchers, state transportation officials, transit authorities, a major automobile manufacturer and several information technology manufacturers.

Many suggested testing all the concepts simultaneously for more practical results. Some respondents also volunteered their facilities for test sites.

Now, FHWA will incorporate the comments into an updated work plan for the long-term initiative. Officials intend to publish a report on the concepts, benefits and deployment scenarios. The timeline for applying research results in the real world has yet to be determined, said federal officials.

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