Virginia Smart Road helps researchers improve automobile safety

Virginia Smart Road helps researchers improve automobile safety

The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) announced that the Virginia Smart Road has logged more than 26,000 hours of research on the road. The Smart Road has been open for 17 years and serves as a resource to help make roads, vehicles and drivers safer.

The VTTI was founded in 1988 as the Center for Transportation Research. The main focus for VTTI is intelligent vehicle and infrastructure research.

Starting with only 15 employees, the research institute expanded over the years, and has grown into a facility with close to 500 employees. According to the VTTI website, VTTI is the second largest university-level transportation institute in the U.S.

 “To become what we are today, VTTI has had to grow in size and complexity,” said Tom Dingus, director of VTTI, in a written statement in a VTTI information brochure. “However, we are still a family at our core; we are a community committed to conducting cutting-edge research to save lives, save time, save money, and protect the environment.”

The Virginia Smart Road was built in 2000 and is a closed testing facility. According to Anne Deekens, technical communicator for VTTI, the Virginia Smart Road is one of the world’s most advanced testing facilities for transportation and safety research.

The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) built and owns the Smart Road, while Virginia Tech and VTTI facilitate testing on it.

The Smart Road is designed for advanced-vehicle testing research, allowing researchers at VTTI to test automated vehicles with different types of advanced technology in a unique recreated urban environment.

When the Smart Road was first built, it was 2.2 miles in length, but is now 2.5 miles in length after two expansions. The road has two paved lanes as well as lighting and weather control systems. According to Deekens, the lighting system is able to recreate 95 percent of the lighting conditions on the U.S. roadways. The weather system is also able to simulate driving conditions under the influence of rain, fog and snow.

The road is equipped with various sensors. Studied vehicles are often installed with data acquisition systems. Small cameras are also installed in the studied vehicles for researchers to study the participants’ reactions to certain road conditions.

The Smart Road has had two major expansions since it was built: a surface street expansion and a live roadway connector expansion.

The surface street expansion allows researchers to recreate environments such as suburban neighborhoods and city intersections. The expansion added buildings, a roundabout, stop-controlled intersections, reconfigurable automation-compatible pavement markings and roadside features to the Smart Road. All the added features are completely configurable in a short period of time.

“Essentially, we can go from creating a multitude of different types of urban environments within a matter of hours,” Deekens said, “so we can offer a lot of different options to the auto manual factors and government agencies that we work with.”

The live roadway connector expansion increases the length of the Smart Road to 2.5 miles. According to Deekens, the live roadway connector allows users the ability to seamlessly transition between a live traffic environment and closed test tracks, linking the Smart Road and new expansion projects directly to a public road.

The live roadway connector enables researchers to study participants and vehicles during long periods of time on the road.

The Smart Road will see two more expansion projects in 2018: automation hub and rural roadway expansion.

Deekens described the automation hub as an extended internship program for graduate and undergraduate students at Virginia Tech, allowing them to collaborate with faculty members and automotive industry partners on research projects.

The rural roadway expansion will increase the length of the Smart Road once again. According to Deekens, the rural roadway expansion allows VTTI to become the first facility to be able to offer automated vehicle testing in our own recreated world environment. The rural roadway expansion will add unpaved, hilly and winding roads to the Smart Road and allow researchers to create more challenging conditions for testing.

“We feel that it’s really important to start looking into this and offering this for suppliers, auto manual factors, other government agencies that we work with, because according to the Department of Transportation, about two-thirds of the roadways in the U.S. are actually rural. This research has the potential to affect a large swath of the country,” Deekens said.

VTTI is currently working with about 100 sponsors conducting research on the Smart Road. The sponsors include major auto companies such as Ford and Toyota and government agencies such as the U.S. Department of Transportation.

“We are fortunate to get to work with so many industry leaders on ways to make sure that our roads and drivers are safer,” Deekens said.

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