The road to enlightenment

Traffic experts in America are designing and building a 6 mile long road which, as well as handling regular traffic, will also provide a research lab for testing new transportation technologies.

Built by The Virginia Department of Transportation and Virginia Tech’s Transportation Institute and due for completion around 2020, the Smart Road is a 5.7mile long test-bed able to generate variable degrees of lighting and weather conditions like snow, rain and fog. Scientists claim that they will be able to duplicate operating parameters like air/water pressure consistently enough to provide a controlled outdoor environment.

The Smart Road’s data collection and communications capability is based on a Conduit Network, a line running parallel to the outside of the roadway, accessible through manhole covers, that provides the power supply to the road and contains fibre optic communications equipment. The fibre optic network is linked to a control centre that overlooks the road. This 30,000ft2 building provides monitoring and control of sensors, power grids, cameras, weather, and lighting, and communication with the test vehicles.

Sensors in the pavement and road surface monitor concrete stress, asphalt strain, soil pressure, moisture penetration, frost depth, vehicle speed, and traffic count.

The Road’s snow/rainmaking machines are installed on towers at 10m spacings. By varying the flow, number of towers, nozzle openings and hydrant settings, it’s possible to create anything from blizzard conditions, to heavy rainfall and fog. The 75 weather towers can rotate 360 degrees and pivot to handle changing wind conditions. Researchers say that the machines can make up to 2 inches of rain per hour in droplets of various sizes, up to four inches of snow, or a layer of ice on the road.

Light conditions can also be varied thanks to lights on adjustable poles configured at 40, 60, 80 and 120m spacings. Equipped with a dimming system, it is thought that this system will aid development of high visibility markings, UV headlights and UV-sensitive signs.

While the two lanes open to regular traffic have sensors built into the pavement, the snow towers, lighting system and other all-weather testing devices are on a separate half-mile section of test bed. Once the full four lanes open to regular traffic, cars and trucks will be routed around the test area when all-weather research is under way. However, pavement sensors and traffic management testing are considered passive and can be conducted with normal traffic.

Scientists also expect that the smart road will enable unprecedented testing and research into smart vehicles, which communicate with roadside sensors and global positioning satellites.

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