Virginia’s electronically tolled express lanes are going to become a testing ground to see if smart cars are the future of transportation.
The Commonwealth Transportation Board last week approved an agreement to use the express lanes on Interstates 95 and 495 to test the emerging technology that allows vehicles to communicate wirelessly with each other and roadway infrastructure.
The agreement is between the Federal Highway Administration, the Virginia Department of Transportation along with 95 Express Lanes LLC and Capital Beltway Express Lanes LLC, both of which are subsidiaries of Transurban, the Australian-based corporation that operates the toll lanes.
The agreement covers a three-year period, but can be extended.
The Federal Highway Administration is working on a schedule, so it’s unclear at this point when testing will begin.
The agreement calls for initial testing to be done when the express lanes are closed. Eventually, the pact says testing will be done “under light traffic conditions.”
Ronique Day, Virginia’s assistant secretary of transportation, said officials “don’t expect there will be any significant impact” on traffic caused by the tests.
Day—who also is the lead in developing a plan on how the state should approach automated and connected-vehicle technology—said the tests hopefully will show whether certain methods of automated and connected vehicle technology can help improve the transportation system.
The testing will involve technology that is supposed to help drivers navigate roadways, so driverless vehicles will not be involved. The express lanes are seen as an ideal testing ground because they are separated from the primary lanes and already have “managed lanes” infrastructure.
Aubrey Layne, Virginia’s secretary of transportation, called the agreement “a new era for VDOT” during Wednesday’s CTB meeting.
The express lane tests will focus on specific methods aimed at improving traffic flow and safety.
One aspect of the testing will be what’s known as Cooperative Adaptive Cruise Control, which allows vehicles to “platoon,” forming, in a sense, a train of cars traveling closely together. The tests also will include platooning tractor–trailers, in groups of three.
“Speed harmonization” also will be a focus of the tests. This concept is supposed to “provide smooth operation of the traffic stream, which reduces bottlenecks, increases reliability, reduces environmental impacts, improves safety, and provides additional comfort and convenience,” according to the agreement.
Another aspect of the tests will be aimed at determining whether connected and automated vehicle technologies can improve lane changes and merging onto and off of roadways. The latter is an issue travelers in the Fredericksburg and Northern Virginia areas are keenly aware of.
The express lanes merge area on I–95 in the Garrisonville area has been a major problem since the toll lanes opened in December 2014. There are two projects aimed at extending the express lanes south, as far as the U.S. 17 area, to fix the problem. Work is underway on a two-mile extension.
The drive toward integrating emerging technologies into the U.S. transportation infrastructure started more than a decade ago, but has accelerated in the past two years.
The U.S. Department of Transportation launched a pilot program for automated and connected vehicle technology in 2015. Last year, three pilot programs got underway—in New York City; Tampa, Fla.; and Wyoming. A previous connected-vehicle pilot program was conducted in Michigan in 2012.
Ken Leonard, director of the USDOT’s Intelligent Transportation Systems Joint Program Office, told the magazine that connected vehicle technology “will transform transportation as we know it.”
Testing in the real world, he added, is a necessary step to make that leap.