June 1, 2010 By Hilton Collins
The nine counties that compose the San Francisco Bay Area will determine this fall whether technology can help ease the region's infamous traffic congestion.
The Bay Area Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) is leading efforts to build an 800-mile express lane network stretching from the Napa Valley wine country to California's fabled Silicon Valley. The initiative will create high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes that are free to vehicles carrying multiple passengers and available to single drivers for a fee.
The United States already has HOT lanes, like the 95 Express in Florida, but the MTC plans to test new technology on the debut segment of the Bay Area's HOT lane construction. If everything goes as planned, a stretch of I-680 will play host to a pilot project in October that will feature "intelligent" cars that could automate the tolling process.
The MTC intends to use wireless technology developed through the U.S. Department of Transportation's (USDOT) IntelliDrive project to automatically detect how many passengers are in a vehicle, give drivers estimated commute times, and calculate and charge toll fees.
"IntelliDrive requires each vehicle to have an onboard unit, like a personal navigation device, where you have lots of time and space to communicate information to the driver," said Janet Banner, the project manager at MTC. "Things that drivers want to know when they're approaching or in a HOT lane are, 'How much is it going to cost?' and 'How much time would it take me to take a trip?'"
The MTC will supply some drivers in the HOT lane project with vehicles equipped with IntelliDrive technology. Others will have to agree to allow the vehicles they already own to undergo temporary installations for the project's duration.
In March, the organization released the first draft of an RFP for help designing, building and operating the test bed site, including roadway structures and technology that will assist in electronic tolling and radio communications for patrol officers. The HOT lane project is scheduled to end in March 2012, according to the program plan.
IntelliDrive is a federal initiative to outfit cars with wireless connectivity that lets them communicate with one another and fixed structures. The goal is to see how this technology can help combat congestion and make commuting safer. The national IntelliDrive program will eventually push for deployment of onboard intelligent transportation systems (ITS) equipment into vehicles. Efforts like the MTC's HOT lane project will test whether the equipment is effective for automated tolling.
But national thinking on ITS issues has been in short supply, according to ITS advocates. "We haven't had a transportation vision that is equivalent to the vision that Eisenhower had when he built the National Highway System," said Scott Belcher, president of the Intelligent Transportation Society of America (ITS America), referring to the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 that was championed by then-President Dwight Eisenhower.
Most current intelligent transportation systems operate independently, which limits their effectiveness when drivers cross jurisdictional lines. As the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation points out in the report, Explaining International IT Application Leadership: Intelligent Transportation Systems, a system that allows a vehicle to communicate over a Michigan-centric network won't work in Indiana. Of course, moving to a more nationally coordinated approach also raises sticky issues about management of these systems between localities, states and the federal government.
In addition, ITS America - a government and industry group that promotes ITS deployment - contends that the U.S. simply isn't spending enough on highways and the tools needed to keep traffic flowing smoothly.
"Three bipartisan panels over the last two years have looked at U.S. investment in transportation," Belcher said. "Each of them concluded that the United States has woefully underinvested in transportation and transportation infrastructure."