USF may test Tampa’s highway of the future


While the driving experience of the 21st century was once envisioned as flying cars zipping past a futuristic metropolis, the future of driving in this half of the century will instead likely feature familiar roads and automobiles upgraded to communicate important information to motorists.

In order to develop and test a highway of the future in Tampa, the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority (THEA) has applied for a Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) grant that would allow the expressway authority to transform about a mile of the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway into a connected highway system. 

If THEA is notified that it will receive one of five grants to construct the highway, the authority also plans to partner with USF’s Center for Urban Transportation Research (CUTR) to test the effectiveness of the roadway.

THEA’s planning director, Bob Frey, said the Selmon Expressway became a test bed for connected vehicle and highway research last March and is one of a few test beds across the U.S. 

A connected highway is different from a regular highway in that its infrastructure communicates with connected vehicles, which Frey said could provide solutions to current transportation problems.

“We’re looking at taking Meridian Avenue, which is right off of the end of the reversible lane segment of Selmon that goes from Brandon (Parkway) and goes all the way down to Channelside, and making that into a connected corridor,” he said. “What we’re looking at is using connected vehicle technologies that can help with safety and operations to try to solve real transportation problems.”

These problems include reducing incidents of motorists running red lights, alerting drivers and public transit vehicles about crashes, reducing accidents between motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians and even assisting in quicker route navigation. 

“For example, if you park at a Lightning game and everybody’s leaving at the same time, a connected infrastructure might be able to tell us what’s the best way to get out, and when we’re coming to the event,” Frey said. “It can tell us where free parking is and what is the best way to get there most efficiently.”

According to Frey, a connected highway would look the same as any other road, as the wireless and wired infrastructure that would allow the expressway to communicate with vehicles would either be embedded in the physical roadway or placed within metal cabinets next to traffic signals. Frey said THEA hopes this integration will help provide a next step to transition from conventional roadways to connected roads.

As explained on the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Intelligent Transportation Systems website, connected highways would communicate to connected vehicles through a wireless system that may be capable of sending messages and providing real-time updates. Frey speculated that connected roadway technology would be developed for cyclists and pedestrians as well. 

“The bicyclists and the pedestrians could have smart apps on phones (and) bicycle infrastructure — technology that’s mounted on bicycles,” Frey said. “We would have all those talking to each other so that we can have more awareness of what’s going on in the roadway.”

Connected cars would not look much different than current car models either, Frey said. The components that would allow these cars to communicate with roadways and the other advanced features added by car manufactures would be mostly integrated into the car and out of view of the driver.

“There would be very slight differences in the vehicles,” Frey said. “It’s not going to be like a Space Age Jetsons type of vehicle … It’s going to look very similar to what you see right now, just different aspects will provide you with different information and enhancements to your driving experience.”

These new features may differ based on the car manufacturer, but the most basic aspect of a connected car is a screen that would display information and updates sent by the roadway. Other features, like those developed by Audi, which has been working closely with THEA, include fully automated driving during traffic jams and cameras inside Audi cars that would warn the driver when his or her eyes drift from the road, Frey said. Other car manufacturers developing connected and automated car technologies include General Motors, which is working closely with the DOT, BMW, Tesla Motors and even Google.

Besides improving the driving experience for motorists in private cars, connected roads could also make public transportation more efficient and encourage a wider use of public transit. Frey said public buses, for example, could be provided with a dedicated lane and given priority on a connected road, ensuring that buses do not wait at traffic lights and instead become the quickest mode of transportation in downtown Tampa.

Connected roadways would also make roads in general more efficient, as Frey said it would allow higher volumes of traffic to move through a roadway without increasing its number of lanes. This, he claimed, is a much better alternative because major cities around the world are currently demonstrating that building more lanes onto existing roadways is an ineffective strategy.

“We cannot build ourselves out of congestion, we’d just run out of room,” Frey said. “So if we’re able to move more vehicles through (roadways) and cut down on the number of crashes that we have through connectivity, then yes, I think this is something that is definitely worth investigating whether or not it will provide the benefits that it looks like it promises.”

In order to secure an FHWA grant and stand out from other test beds, Frey said THEA would need to effectively identify prominent transportation issues, develop solutions to solve those issues using a connected road system and, perhaps most importantly, monitor the system and evaluate its effectiveness.

“The ability to evaluate and monitor is what I think is going to make or break a lot of these (grant) applications,” Frey said. “The whole purpose of this is to advance technology, so whatever comes out of this will be able to be used by the U.S. DOT as data on what works and what doesn’t. They’re going to want really good data on evaluations.”

This detailed monitoring and testing of the connected roadway on Selmon is where USF’s CUTR would come in. According to Frey, CUTR has been working closely with THEA to help develop methods to oversee and manage the technologies involved in a connected roadway system. 

Steve Reich, CUTR’s program director, said the general focus of their testing would be the effectiveness and maintainability of each of the aspects of a connected roadway system.

“I can’t reveal any details because we’re competing with other cities … but we would set up a testing protocol and hypothesis for each technology that would be used, like car and road communication and stoplight systems,” Reich said.

Reich hopes this grant, if awarded to THEA, would help position the Tampa Bay area as an incubator for further connected vehicle technology, opening the door for additional connected roadways in the future, as well as autonomous roads that may not need constant monitoring.

“With the leap from interconnected technologies to fully automated technologies, there are a lot of barriers to overcome,” Reich said. “What we are doing is helping each agency and developing tests for this technology.”

Frey said THEA expects totally autonomous roadways to be possible by 2040, which is what the authority is planning for in their current infrastructure development cycle. 

But for now, THEA will wait until September to see if it receives an FHWA grant that will allow it to move forward with creating Tampa Bay’s first highway of the future.