By Larry Orcutt, Caltrans Research and Innovation Chief
What is an innovation? A discovery?
An opportunity to make things better for future generations?
Many discoveries are not considered an “innovation” because they never reach the real world. For Caltrans’ Division of Research and Innovation, research has to become a workable reality to achieve true innovation.
Caltrans recognizes innovation as one of its four values, in addition to integrity, commitment and teamwork. Caltrans empowers employees to seek creative solutions and take intelligent risks.
But innovation — whether it be an idea, method, or device — is incomplete unless it is integrated into a working system. Here is a sample of some of Caltrans’ successful innovations that are changing the lives of our customers.
How many times have you been stopped in traffic, wishing you had anticipated the traffic snarls that you could have avoided with an alternate route?
Caltrans and its partners do not have a mystical crystal ball, but transportation officials are working on something just as handy.
The Safe and Efficient Travel through Innovation and Partnerships for the 21st Century (SafeTrip-21) Initiative is intended to expand and accelerate the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (US DOT) Vehicle Infrastructure Integration (VII) Program. Sponsored by the US DOT Research and Innovative Technology Administration (RITA), the program will build upon sophisticated information, navigation, and communications technologies research to advance national transportation goals in safety and mobility.
The SafeTrip-21 Initiative was designed to reduce motor vehicle crashes, alleviate traffic congestion, enhance transit use and ride sharing, promote motor freight efficiency and safety, allow convenient electronic payment options, moderate environmental impacts, and reduce unnecessary motor fuel consumption in both urban and rural settings.
“We’re integrating existing technologies to show that we can measurably improve safety and transportation system efficiency or mobility,” said RITA Administrator Paul Brubaker. “SafeTrip-21 is designed to demonstrate that through better use of information, navigation, communications, technologies, and protocols, we can make a measurable impact.”
RITA selected Caltrans and its partners to perform the first two projects, “Mobile Millennium” and “Networked Traveler.”
Caltrans is leading Mobile Millennium in partnership with Nokia, Navteq, the California Center for Innovative Transportation at the University of California, Berkeley, and the US DOT. The funding for Mobile Millennium is $6 million, including federal, state, and private sector shares. This project takes advantage of recent progress in “smart” cell phone technology, particularly the emerging trend of including Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers that can determine precise speeds and locations.
Within the next year, many of Nokia’s cell phones will have GPS capabilities. Other cell phone makers, such as Apple, Samsung, LG and RIM (Blackberry), are beginning to produce GPS-equipped phones as well. Drivers with GPS-equipped cell phones can collect their vehicle speed at a given location, providing them with real-time traffic conditions and travel times. Mobile Millennium uses the existing cell phone network and private sector partners. Nokia and Navteq perform the necessary computer processing. This technology uses existing Caltrans infrastructure, which saves Caltrans the capital costs of installing new infrastructure, as well as recurring operation and maintenance costs.
This project is based on a successful proof-of-concept demonstration, called Mobile Century, which took place on February 8, 2008. In the Mobile Century project, 100 cars with GPS-equipped cell phones were driven along a 10-mile loop of Interstate 880, near Fremont, for 10 hours. The traffic data generated by these cars compared quite favorably to the data collected from existing Caltrans vehicle sensors along this loop, showing that the concept was worth pursuing further.
The Mobile Millennium pilot project will use up to 10,000 volunteer motorists, driving their normal routes and patterns. Even though this is a small number compared to the total number of cars in the Bay Area, the Mobile Century experiment proved that as few as 2 percent of equipped cars on the roadway can provide excellent traffic data quality. Since November 10, 2008, volunteers have been signing up to participate in Mobile Millennium. If cell phone users meet the criteria for inclusion in the project, they can download the enabling client software into their cell phones from the following Web site: http://traffic.berkeley.edu. In exchange for providing traffic data through their cell phones, the volunteer drivers are given traveler information on their cell phones in the form of a traffic speed-map that shows red, yellow, and green indications of traffic speeds along their route.
The project will collect data from the Bay Area, as well as the Interstate 80 and US-50 corridors between San Francisco and Lake Tahoe. This data will inform recreational travelers, primarily skiers, of real-time traffic conditions as they drive to and from the Bay Area.
Program organizers are exerting considerable effort to protect the privacy of volunteer drivers. The cell phones do not begin to transmit data until drivers have traveled a minimum distance from their starting point, and data is not sent continuously, but at random intervals. There are several other features designed to protect privacy. Independent research entity, Rutgers University, is evaluating the design to ensure that it satisfies these requirements.
To maintain safety, researchers are investigating hands-free operations that use speech recognition technology to receive driver commands. They are also looking at text-to-speech capabilities that convert information to a spoken format to enable motorists to keep their attention on the task of driving.
With this technology, Caltrans can collect traffic data on arterial routes, such as El Camino Real (State Route 82) and San Pablo Avenue (SR-123), which do not have traffic sensors. Mobile Millennium will allow Caltrans to provide drivers with efficient real-time traveler information (speeds and travel times) on these arterial routes. Virtual trip lines (VTL) are placed on certain routes. The entire country has VTLs installed in anticipation of a national deployment of this technology.
Caltrans management expects that the pilot program will lead to a product and large-scale deployment in other regions, such as Los Angeles, San Diego and Sacramento. The private sector has the ability to rapidly deploy the product once approved.
The second project, called Networked Traveler, is an outgrowth of the existing VII California test bed, which is a wireless network already operating in Palo Alto. The test bed broadcasts safety and mobility information over Wi-Fi and short-range communications. It takes advantage of the ongoing revolution in wireless and personal computing to improve safety and increase mobility for travelers. This field operational test will develop and showcase applications based on existing consumer products, such as smart cell phones and personal navigation devices, as a means of delivering personalized traveler information to drivers and transit riders. Caltrans is leading the Networked Traveler project in partnership with US DOT, Navteq, Nissan, Santa Clara Valley Transit Authority and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.
The Networked Traveler serves as the catalyst to America’s transportation future. It is our version of the predictive crystal ball. It makes traveling safer and more efficient by giving motorists access to information before and during a trip. It provides a link between the devices of today, and those of the future, where safety and information systems will be integrated into auto assembly lines.
The Networked Traveler employs cell phones to alert drivers to stalled traffic ahead. This application seeks to reduce the type of crashes in which distracted or inattentive drivers do not react in time to avoid a line of cars in front of them. A large percentage of car crashes on the freeway fit this category and result in severe injuries and fatalities. The safety alert system is intended to give drivers enough time to stop and avoid these crashes.
The Networked Traveler improves mobility by giving transit riders pre-trip planning information, as well as en route, real-time travel information. The project enables users to receive information such as route connection, transfer, next bus arrival time, and real-time arrival estimates. This information provides significant benefits to transit riders, making their trips more reliable and efficient.
During 2009, the Networked Traveler will use the San Francisco Bay Area roadway infrastructure for a field operational test. It employs communications between infrastructure and the traveler to benefit motorists and transit riders. Both Mobile Millennium and Networked Traveler were demonstrated in November 2008 at the Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) World Congress in New York City. These demonstrations provided attendees with a real-world preview of the testing planned through 2009. The Mobile Century project earned a Best of ITS award at the 2008 ITS America Annual Meeting.
As these two projects are deployed, they will change how today’s transportation systems are operated by providing travelers real-time information that will improve their quality of life. How many times have you been stopped in traffic, wishing you had been notified to take an alternate route? Having real-time information will enhance our ability to manage transportation systems. Transit and highway user information will improve our ability to reduce travel demand by getting reliable and accurate data to users so they can avoid the peak demands on the transportation systems. The Safe Trip-21 projects will truly showcase what ITS can do with today’s technologies to improve mobility across the nation.
Caltrans does not have a crystal ball, but it has committed to work with a national team of transportation stakeholders to create and use a variety of public services that are just as amazing.
For more information, e-mail Greg Larson at