The Role of Digital Infrastructure: Preparing Georgia’s Highways for the Future

BY Stephen Goldsmith & Matt Leger • October 14, 2021

Zero deaths from traffic crashes. That is one of the very ambitious goals of an innovative partnership in Georgia between the state’s Department of Transportation (GDOT) and The Ray, a 501c(3) nonprofit dedicated to reducing the negative environmental and human impacts of the transportation industry.

Six years ago, the partnership began its important work exploring how and where to incorporate emerging technologies along I-85 between West Point and LaGrange, a highway dedicated in 2014 to Ray Anderson, the late father of The Ray’s founder and president, Harriet Langford. Together, these two organizations have transformed I-85 into the “premier living laboratory and testbed for transportation innovation.”

In this partnership, The Ray serves as “the technology implementation and research support function, pushing the envelope on emerging solutions,” explains Andrew Heath, state traffic engineer for GDOT. “They introduce the technology and develop the test case. Then GDOT provides guidance on how to navigate state rules and regulations regarding implementation.”

The partnership is focused on environmental and safety improvements by advancing the rollout of electric (EV), connected (CV) and autonomous vehicles (AV). To achieve their goals and reach a more sustainable future, the partnership understands that this requires not just strong physical infrastructure, but robust digital infrastructure as well.

The future of highways is connected and data-rich

After a year of COVID-19 lockdowns, traffic deaths spiked in 2020 despite fewer cars on the road and less traffic. In fact, traffic deaths during COVID-19 reached the highest levels seen in 13 years. “We’re living in this period of transportation and mobility that is distinctly less safe, and it can be disillusioning, working toward Vision Zero,” explained Allie Kelly, Executive Director of The Ray. However, that is not stopping her from exploring emerging technologies in the hope of saving lives. “We still believe that data and technology will make roads more safe,” said Kelly.

To discover what truly works, the partnership is going beyond traditional simulations or models to test solutions in a live environment. “We are actually getting technology deployed on the ground, implementing it and seeing how it functions in the real world,” said Heath.

Driven by the belief that CV and AV technology has the potential to significantly reduce traffic crashes, GDOT and The Ray feel strongly that the technology already exists to achieve their goals. “We have always believed that the future of highways is... connected and data-rich,” explained Kelly. The true challenge is building out the digital infrastructure necessary to support a connected vehicle ecosystem in a way that is cost effective, replicable, and scalable, and ultimately proves capable of improving road safety.

The promise of connected vehicle technology

Today, every major vehicle producer offers some level of connectivity in their vehicles and by 2025, nearly all new vehicles will be natively connected. With ubiquitous connectivity on the horizon, there is an opportunity to gather enormous volumes of real-time vehicle and traffic data to improve efficiency and safety, and ultimately enable autonomous mobility.

All CVs come with a standardized data packet. These data packets feature more than 100 data points and are broadcast directly from the vehicle about 10 times per second. These broadcasts are picked up by sensors and radio frequencies along roadways and provide both descriptive and contextual data points about the vehicle. Descriptive data points include basic information about the vehicle including weight, type, model, make, year, color, location, current speed, and direction. Contextual data points include things like status of airbag, as well as status of tire traction with the road, hazard lights, and wiper sets, from which inferences can be made about the status of a vehicle. With these data packets being broadcast with such high frequency, they can be anonymously analyzed in real-time to help GDOT and public safety personnel make proactive decisions to improve safety or respond more quickly in the event of an emergency.

For example, data packets broadcast from several vehicles traveling close together might show that several drivers are traveling at speeds of 85 miles per hour, oriented towards the northeast, and their wipers and lights are on. From these data points, it can be inferred that these vehicles are driving at high speeds in potentially dangerous conditions. Traffic safety personnel can then use that information to broadcast safety messages on digital signage along the route these vehicles are traveling to encourage them to slow down.

A few moments later, the data packets from these same vehicles read that most have slowed to 65 miles per hour, suggesting that the messaging was successful, ultimately improving safety conditions. However, the data packets from one of those vehicles shows it has not slowed down and its stability control program has been activated. Then suddenly, the data packet shows that the vehicle is now going 0 miles per hour, its orientation is southeast, its hazard lights are on, and its airbag has been deployed. From these data points, traffic safety and emergency response personnel can infer that the vehicle has been in an accident and can deploy resources to the scene using the vehicle's exact latitude and longitude. Meanwhile, traffic safety operators can activate an accident warning message on the electronic messaging boards along that route automatically to warn other drivers of the potential hazard ahead.

Building out the physical and digital infrastructure to prepare for a connected vehicle future

While the case study above shows promise, developing this level of real-time response capabilities does not come without challenges. “If every vehicle on the road is natively connected,” explained Kelly, “and each is broadcasting more than 100 data points 10 times per second, this creates an enormous volume of data to sift through.” No human is capable of doing that, so the partnership is working to build up the data management and analytics capabilities today to be able to comb through that data when the day comes that all vehicles on the road are part of a connected ecosystem.

To prepare for the connected vehicle future, investments in physical and digital infrastructure need to be made in advance. As a government entity, GDOT is taking the lead on connecting and maintaining state-owned infrastructure to gather information from connected vehicles. This may include  sensors on right-of-way assets including traffic signals, street lights, radio and telecommunications towers, automated toll stations, and guardrails. The goal is to enable large-scale, real-time information sharing and to make all raw data available to anyone who wants to use it, including policymakers, researchers, application developers, journalists, or the general public. The partnership is working to ensure stringent data-privacy rules are in place to protect the information of vehicle occupants and that there are robust security measures to protect against cyber-attacks.

“As state traffic engineer,” said Andrew Heath, administrator for GDOT’s Office of Traffic Operations, “it is my job to determine how to position the department to take advantage of emerging technologies that improve transportation operations and public safety.” With connected vehicles in our not-so-distant future, GDOT is working to build out the infrastructure to support that in advance. “We are working with The Ray to establish a strategic roadmap for preparing our infrastructure for connected vehicles, with the ultimate goal of building the physical and digital infrastructure necessary to enable autonomous vehicles to navigate our roadways.”

As the connective tissue is being built, The Ray is working with a third-party vendor to deploy a cloud-based data management platform to manage the data pipeline, develop the algorithms to detect patterns and anomalies, and to extract meaningful information from that data. According to Kelly, some early use cases include crash detection and warning, weather impacts on driving conditions, work zone warning, and freight priority at connected intersections.

However, beyond data management, The Ray understands that real-time information is only useful if GDOT and public safety personnel can actually act upon it in real-time. So as they develop the data management capabilities and use cases, they are also working to create customized communication templates to be able to communicate with drivers through digital message boards or radio frequencies in locations where crashes have been detected or weather is impacting traffic and road conditions. “As you create the data management capabilities, the question now becomes can we use the information being gathered to communicate with drivers within seconds in order to help prevent crashes?” said Kelly. So, in choosing a data management platform, The Ray prioritized a platform that was interoperable with communications platforms to support these types of messaging capabilities.

With these combined data management and communications tools, the partnership believes they will be able to replicate the kind of real-time response capabilities highlighted in the case study mentioned previously.

Trailblazing a path to zero deaths for other state DOTs

Using The Ray Highway as a testbed, the partnership is currently working to develop a robust proof-of-concept for their solution. While there is still progress to be made, they are continuing to push the envelope to discover what’s possible with CV technology and the mountains of data that come with it. As they prove successful, they hope to be able to expand beyond I-85 to not only cover the entire state of Georgia, but to trailblaze a path for other states. “We really hope that our model can set the standard for other state DOT’s to follow,” said Heath, “The potential for this technology to save lives cannot be understated, and if we can show that zero deaths is possible, or that we can at least significantly reduce traffic deaths, then others can do it too.”

Want to learn more? Listen to the corresponding podcast with Allie Kelly and Andrew Heath below:

About the Author

Stephen Goldsmith 

Stephen Goldsmith is the Derek Bok Professor of the Practice of Urban Policy and the Director of the Innovations in American Government Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. His latest book is Growing Fairly: How to Build Opportunity and Equity in Workforce Development.

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About the Author

Matthew Leger

Matt Leger is a Research Assistant for the Innovations in Government Program at the Ash Center. He has a diversity of experiences in research across the public and private sectors, as well as in academia with a primary focus on understanding how technology can be used to help address some of society’s greatest challenges. Matt has worked with the Smart Cities Strategies team at the International Data Corporation (IDC); the NYCx team in the NYC Mayor’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer; and at the research institute CTG-UAlbany. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in Public Policy and a Master’s Degree in Public Administration both from the Nelson A. Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy at the University at Albany in Albany, NY.