LARAMIE, Wyo. — The Interstate 80 corridor cutting across Wyoming is a major thoroughfare for tractor-trailers transporting freight across the country. It can also be deadly during the long Wyoming winter, when blowing snow, ice and decreased visibility make travel dangerous.
Ongoing research — funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Highway Administration and the Wyoming Department of Transportation — aims to make this corridor safer for all drivers using connected vehicle technology, which allows cars to communicate with each other about road and traffic conditions.
University of Wyoming Assistant Professor Mohamed Ahmed is running the research out of UW's Driving Simulator Laboratory, of which he is the director.
"We have lots of safety and adverse weather issues on that (I-80) corridor," Ahmed said. "So, the connected vehicle project helps in reducing crashes and decreasing the severity of crashes as well by providing real-time and timely information on the roadway."
Ahmed and his lab are looking into several aspects of the connected vehicle technology, testing it before it can be implemented along I-80.
The technology will gather information through connected vehicles and roadside units along the interstate, delivering up-to-date information and warnings to Wyoming drivers, Ahmed said.
"You have cars talking to one another and they can talk to the infrastructure as well," he said. "So, connected vehicle technology is based on dedicated short-range communication, very similar to the Wi-Fi you have in your office, which will enable cars to talk to one another."
One's car will simply receive information through a human-machine interface — this could be the car's entertainment system or an app on the driver's smartphone or other device. The human driver must still decide what to do with that information.
"The driver remains in full control," Ahmed said. "This is zero (percent) automation, so your car will not take any action. It just provides a warning."
These warnings can tell a driver about upcoming work zones or even impending forward collisions.
"So, you're distracted, you're on the phone and you're approaching a car in front of you very quickly — the car will send you a warning that you're about to collide, about to crash with the car in front," Ahmed said. "So, the two cars would talk to one another. The car in front of you is braking abruptly, then that car will tell you that you need to brake."
This warning system relies on many human elements — and that aspect is a major part of the pilot program now under way.
"The main role of the driving simulator lab in this project is first, to test the human-machine interface designs because we need to have a very simple design that drivers can easily understand and comprehend," Ahmed said. "And then we're also studying the different human factors in it."
Ahmed's research is looking into where human-machine interfaces should be placed to be most effective and least distracting for drivers. The research is also looking at how quickly drivers react, the best messages to send to drivers and how to prioritize messages should the system need to alert the driver of multiple scenarios at once.
"I have a weather condition, I have a crash ahead and it's a work zone at the same time," Ahmed said. "What should be the sequence of disseminating information to the driver? That's another thing we can test in the driving simulator lab."
But the project is using the simulator to look into other factors as well.
"Part of this pilot is testing also the market penetration rates," Ahmed said. "Like, how many cars are we going to have on the roadways, and what are the different penetration rates, like what if we have only 1 percent equipped with these technologies, what if it is 5, 25, 50 percent, maybe 100 percent one day?"
It is possible, Ahmed said, if the technology became widespread but not ubiquitous, drivers might grow used to receiving warnings such as "slow down" or "you're about to collide," which is not a problem when driving a connected vehicle that is receiving such information, but could become a problem when that driver gets behind the wheel of a rental or other unfamiliar car.
But as WYDOT snow plows and other vehicles begin to be equipped with connected vehicle technology, even cars which are not gathering and sending out information will benefit from the better information they will start receiving.
Ultimately, the project looks to increase driver safety by offering more real-time information to drivers. Determining the best way of doing this, given all the human factors involved, is the goal of Ahmed's research.
The Driving Simulator Lab — which can simulate all kinds of weather and road conditions, as well as other hazards — was founded in 2013. It now hosts two open cockpit cabs, one a 2004 Ford Fusion used to mimic passenger vehicles and a 2000 Sterling AT9500 used to mimic tractor-trailers.