Printer Friendly Version

Smarter roadways, safer driving: Anthem’s SMART Drive put to the test


Elizabeth Medora

ANTHEM – Drive on Daisy Mountain Dr., and you’ll notice the “SMART Drive” signs along the road. These signs indicate that Daisy Mountain is part of a pioneering effort to make roadways “smarter”, promoting road safety.

This system works via transmitters that can communicate with traffic signals to prioritize certain vehicles, like emergency vehicles. This program makes vehicles and traffic signals interact for safer driving.

SMART Drive history

According to the Maricopa County Department of Transportation web site, the Connected Vehicle Program was initiated in 2007 by MCDOT, the Arizona Department of Transportation, and the University of Arizona. The idea behind it was to identify in what ways technology could improve incident management, traffic signal operations, and more.

“During this time, MCDOT developed the concept of vehicle prioritization and used this concept to develop applications to improve safety for emergency responders,” MCDOT states on its Connected Vehicles Program web page. “This concept, now known as the MCDOT SMARTDrive℠ Program, prevents emergency vehicles from colliding with one another at signalized intersections while responding to emergencies. The MCDOT SMARTDrive℠ Program simultaneously communicates with multiple emergency vehicles arriving at the same intersection at the same time and relates back which vehicle has the right-of-way.”

One of the first seven test beds in the country was constructed in Anthem in 2011. Since then, the Arizona Connected Vehicle program has expanded testing to include applications, such as a specialized pedestrian crosswalk app, a transit priority app, and a trucking priority app, MCDOT notes.

The main goal behind making traffic signals smart is safety. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says that 35,092 people died in motor vehicle crashes in 2015. Researchers are looking for ways to utilize technology to help avoid crashes.

MCDOT, University of Arizona Professor K. Larry Head, Ph.D., a team from UofA, and other agencies joined together for a SMARTDrive demonstration in Anthem on Aug. 3, and Foothills Focus staff had the opportunity to observe. Another demonstration is scheduled for next week.

Driving SMART

The demonstration starts and ends in the CVS parking lot at Daisy Mountain Dr. and Gavilan Peak Pkwy.

Inside the SUV for the demonstration, there’s a laptop with a program open that shows traffic signals and priority requests in the area. Multiple other testing vehicles are coordinating for this demonstration, each assigned a particular priority level.

The demonstration SUV has priority requests showing on the laptop as it approaches Daisy Mountain Dr. traffic signals. This means the SUV will still wait at lights, but its direction gets priority to go sooner than if the system wasn’t receiving that priority request. All emergency vehicles get overriding priority status, vs. this demonstration SUV, which registers as a transit vehicle. The request status that the demonstration SUV is registering means that it’s “trying to get a green as soon as we safely can,” Dr. Head explains, while driving the vehicle.

“Emergency vehicles override everyone else,” Head said.

The system maps out the road, showing traffic signals on the laptop as you approach them. The demonstration vehicles are playing different roles, including as emergency vehicles. The program recognizes the transmitted signals and provides incident messages for incidents, work zones, and emergency vehicles in the near vicinity as part of the demonstration.

Overall, the program works impressively well. Some of the transmissions aren’t picked up as quickly as researchers want them to be, and results are noted as research on the project continues.

A smarter driving experience

Researchers are continuing to look for ways to make the driving experience smarter and safer, trying out safety and efficiency techniques through technology.

Getting vehicles equipped with more technology is part of the future plan. Researchers are looking into a vehicle alert system to help improve road safety as part of future roadway safety projects. Vehicles equipped with this technology would alert drivers  to move over when, for instance, an ambulance was coming up behind them.

Head also noted that they’re equipping local school buses for traffic signals. The goal isn’t to get “aggressive” with priority requests at the traffic signals but instead to do “what makes the most sense” for traffic safety and flow, according to Head.

“I’ve been doing traffic signals for almost 30 years,” Head said. “It’s about time they got smart.”