Smart Roads, Smart Cars, but the Drivers?

(No, you're thinking of Vermont.) New Hampshire has lots of paved roads, and several of them—all highways—are about get smart enough to sense and report on their surface conditions. To these data will be added some advisories about ambient meteorological conditions as well as a few details on the traffic that's either moving or not moving in the area and why. Let's take a quick look at the RWIS (Road Weather Information System) program and how it could prevent another once-in-a-generation tangle such as happened this past Saturday.

The basic plan, and you can read more details in the Sensors April issue, R&D department, calls for embedding sensors about the size of hockey pucks (see Surface Systems, Inc. and Implementation of RWIS in New Hampshire) into the pavement surface. Others will be buried some 47 cm below and wired to the surface. They will send news about surface temperatures, the sort of precipitation that is falling (rain, sleet, snow, general crud), and the status of melt chemicals already laid down to contend with it.

These sensors will report to towers, 11 of them, and in those towers will be other sensors that will detect ozone levels, air temperature, humidity, wind behavior, and traffic counts (which will include the various types of vehicle passing by).

The collected data will be accessible via the Web to the New Hampshire Department of Transportation so that it can take care of trouble spots. Road crews could be dispatched to plow, sand, lay down melt, or even be allowed an hour or two of sleep, depending on what's happening outside.

The Ginormous Pileup
It. Was. Amazing. Last Saturday, February 25, parts of this state got wind-driven snow that took visibility down to about the nose of your vehicle (assuming not a Hummer). Squalls were predicted, but this one was a corker. A tractor-trailer rig jacknifed on I93 South in Londonderry (one of the proposed areas for sensor installation), and then it was Katie, bar the door! One by one, and then in small bunches, here came another 49 vehicles that plowed into and onto one another. See Dispatcher, Rescuers React To Saturday's 50-Car Pile-Up and Wintry Weather Causes 50 Car Pile-Up On Interstate. (Yeah, only 50 in all, but 50 in NH = 1000 in CA. This is a small state!)

The Sensors Step Up
The road surface was basically OK, but everyone entering that area—and the conventional wisdom here is that if you don't like the weather, wait a minute or drive a mile—suddenly entered a No-See Zone.

Now, suppose those vehicles had been equipped with receivers that picked up reports from the data collection towers alerting their drivers to something Very Bad up ahead. And suppose that the drivers had listened and either pulled over until the worst was past (squalls generally don't go on for hours, or if they're expected to, only the most news-aversive fail to hear the predictions), or had taken a side road to avoid meeting that stuck rig. Or imagine that they had at least slowed down enough not to have completely pancaked their cars in the general mix-n-mangle. (Amazingly, only 10 people involved in this commotion had to be taken from the scene for minor medical attention.)

Even better would have been a signal from a tower going straight to the vehicles themselves as they approached the turmoil. Another vehicle's proximity detected! Brakes applied! Automatically! Soft impact, if any. And an explanation delivered over an automatically activated emergency broadcast on the vehicle's radio.

By Now You Ask Why
I don't know where you live, but in New Hampshire, tailgating is the preferred way to drive (and one of my chief bugbears). Even the police do it. Even grannies in the grocery store do it with their carts. (Who says New Hampshirites are distant one from another?) I can go out onto any road, street, or highway and see a little vehicle-shaped dot far behind and know it will soon fill my entire rear window, riding so close that I can count the driver's nose hairs. I suspect that a considerable number of those 50 cars and trucks and what-you-will that created last Saturday's mile-long lump of metal on I93 wouldn't have joined it if various smart sensors had kept them from driving the way they do. Heck, they're smarter than that. And I mean the sensors.