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Caltrans Embarks Upon the Road to Tomorrow

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When all of the freeways have been widened, all of the emergency shoulders eliminated, all of the “reversible” lanes reversed, traffic congestion will continue to grow worse in most of California’s urban areas.

That dreary prospect has caused the California Department of Transportation to embark on the most ambitious research program in its history--an expensive, long-term effort to find alternatives to today’s road and freeway system.

“In some areas, like Los Angeles, there’s no more room for new freeways and the next advance has to be technological,” said Caltrans Director Robert Best.

The new Caltrans research activities range from relatively simple things like machines to quickly place pavement markers and seal freeway cracks to complex “Star Trek” systems that would propel “platoons” of vehicles down automated freeways at 70 m.p.h., with only 50-foot separations between cars.

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“Our near-term goal is to double lane capacity on the freeways and reduce the accident rate by 50%,” said John Vostrez, one of the program’s supervisors.

Some of the new equipment like on-board computers may be ready in two or three years. But complicated schemes like automated freeways are probably 20 years or more away.

Caltrans has been sponsoring research for many years, in a series of laboratories in and around Sacramento, but most of the work was tied to immediate road problems like better signs or improved sound walls.

“That changed when Gov. Deukmejian decided he wanted to do something about (traffic) congestion,” said Earl Shirley, chief of the division of new technology and research.

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In a radio talk two years ago, and on many occasions since, Gov. George Deukmejian warned that congestion was hurting the state’s economy.

Studies are inexact but researchers estimate that traffic congestion cost the state about $10 billion in 1987, half of that in the Los Angeles area. Those losses will quadruple by 1995 “unless Draconian measures are taken to restrict demand or redirect it,” according to a Caltrans report.

After Best was appointed director in February, 1988, he reorganized Caltrans, bringing together all of the units that were dealing with congestion problems into a new Office of Traffic Improvement.

So far about $11 million has been spent on research--$6 million in state funds, $4 million from the federal government and $1 million from private companies.

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Much of the money has gone to the University of California’s Institute of Transportation Studies, which is sponsoring research by at least two dozen faculty members on the Berkeley, Davis and Irvine campuses and at a field station in Richmond.

Most of this work has been gathered together in the Program on Advanced Technology on the Highway (PATH), which includes research on navigation, electrification and automated highways.

The navigation system, called Pathfinder, presently consists of a small video screen, placed at eye level next to a driver. The driver dials in a destination, then follows a series of maps that scroll across the screen.

Detailed maps of every urbanized area in the country are included on a single compact disk, said Andrew Pitcairn, senior account manager for Etak, the small Menlo Park company that manufactures the system.

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Eventually, Pathfinder will provide two-way communication between the vehicle and a control center, which can advise the driver about road conditions and direct him to alternate routes to avoid accidents or other congestion.

The system soon will be tested along the Santa Monica Freeway in Los Angeles, where information from the freeway and from five major arterial streets--Adams, Olympic, Pico, Venice and Washington boulevards--will be relayed to the drivers of 25 test cars.

“This is part of the effort to get full use of a transportation corridor--the arterial streets as well as the freeway,” said Ralph Blackburn, a Caltrans transportation engineer. “If we could get 10% of the vehicles to leave the freeway (and use relatively uncluttered arterial streets), the Los Angeles congestion problem might be eliminated.”

By itself, Pathfinder provides “only marginal improvement,” said John Vostrez of Caltrans, “but it will be an integral part of the ultimate automated system.”

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Some UC researchers believe that vehicles powered by electricity, or at least by something other than the internal combustion engine, will also be an important part of the solution to traffic congestion.

Alternative Fuels

“The only way this is going to work is with clean-burning alternative fuels,” said Daniel Sperling, associate professor of civil engineering and also of environmental studies at UC Davis. “You can’t double the road capacity and still continue to use fossil fuels” because of the additional air pollution they would cause.

In the past, most electric vehicles have run on batteries, which meant their range was limited because the batteries had to be recharged often.

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But researchers at UC Berkeley’s Richmond field station are experimenting with an electric bus that operates for eight hours without a battery recharge because most of its power is drawn from a “transformer core” placed in the roadway.

Many of the fondest hopes of Caltrans officials and UC researchers are pinned to the “automated highway,” which would largely take control of the car out of the hands of the driver and give it to computers.

“When you look at what’s going on out there (on the freeways), you can’t believe it,” Vostrez said. “People are speeding up, slowing down, changing lanes like a bunch of maniacs . . . there’s a lot of stress out there. People are even shooting at each other.”

Vostrez and Shirley pointed out that only 10% of the available freeway pavement is filled with vehicles at any one time, even in peak traffic periods. But they say capacity could be doubled or even tripled if cars moved at the same speed and if they moved down the center of the freeway lane instead of veering from side to side.

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Control of Vehicles

“If we want to occupy less space in a safer manner, we’ve got to control both the width and the spacing of the vehicles,” said Robert E. Parsons, director of the PATH research program.

Cars would be held in the center of the lane by a lateral guidance system that depends on electric sensors placed in the roadbed. When the vehicle veers right or left, the sensors feed that information to an on-board computer, which automatically returns the car to the center of the lane.

Longitudinal control--moving vehicles at high speed without having them crash into each other--was described by one Caltrans engineer as “a smarter version of the ‘cruise control’ we have on cars now.”

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In the vehicle Caltrans is testing--designed by John Davis, president of Radar Control Systems of San Diego--this is achieved by radar. The radar scans the terrain ahead 50 to 100 times per second and feeds this information into an on-board computer, which then causes the car to speed up or slow down as necessary to maintain a constant separation between cars.

“What we do is lock onto the car in front,” Davis said. “What he does, we do. I truly believe we have a new technology for the automobile industry here, one that will make the freeway system work two or three times better than it does now, and it will be safer, too.”

Major Test Scheduled

Davis and his colleagues have been driving the radar-equipped cars for several years but the first major test will come later this year, when a “platoon” of half a dozen vehicles will start using a reversible lane on Interstate 15 north of San Diego during midday hours when the lane is not in use.

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Davis said the cost of the radar collision-avoidance system is about $10,000 per unit now but he hopes eventually it can be sold for about $500.

The total cost of the automated highway improvements must be reduced to about $700 per vehicle if they are to be widely used, in Parsons’ opinion.

Much of the automated highway technology has been made possible by an “explosion in the sensor field,” coupled with the “rapidly declining price of personal computers,” Parsons said.

Even so, it will be very expensive to build guideways to control lateral movement and to produce a system that can communicate information to the vehicles and it is not clear where the money will come from.

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One possibility is road pricing--that is, charging motorists and other users premium rates to use the automated freeways at peak periods. This has been tried in Hong Kong and in Singapore, with mixed results.

Caltrans Director Best favors road pricing, but the official position is that the agency is merely studying the possibility.

Politically Controversial

“It’s something we’re talking about,” Earl Shirley said. “It’s at the level of consciousness-raising. Politically, it’s very controversial.”

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A major question is this: How will the public react to a system that takes decisions out of the hands of the individual driver and gives them to a computer?

Research into what engineers call human factors is taking place at UC Davis, where one team of faculty members and graduate students is studying how effectively drivers use automated equipment. Another team is investigating how much people might be willing to pay for these systems.

A second problem is what to do with all the new vehicles that a more efficient road system would accommodate. Where will they park? How can gridlock be prevented in downtown commercial districts?

Liability Issue

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Then there is the question of liability, which Parsons called the Achilles heel of this research effort.

“This system would be much safer than what’s out there now,” he said, “but with this technology you can trace fault (for accidents). How do you limit liability and keep the ‘deep pockets’ thing from killing us before we get started?”

Despite these problems and others, most of the researchers are confident that at least some of these new ideas will be adopted, simply because there are no alternatives.

“Fundamentally, what’s happened is that we’ve paved the world, especially in the Los Angeles area,” said Andrew Frank, professor of mechanical engineering at UC Davis, “and now what we’ve got to do is make much more efficient use of that pavement.”

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CRUISE CONTROL OF THE FUTURE 1. Much of the intensified Caltrans research program is aimed at producing an “automated highway” to take advantage of both “smart vehicles” and “smart highways” to propel “platoons” of cars or trucks at speeds of up to 70 m.p.h., with separations between vehicles of as little as 50 feet. A roadside transmitter-receiver tells the vehicles what lies ahead--accident, fog, congestion--and provides them with instructions--speed up, slow down, take alternate routes--on how to avoid problems.

2. Electronic sensors placed in the roadbed control the lateral movement of the car, sending information to the on-board computer in each vehicle which prevents it from veering right or left. This means each vehicle needs less space, increasing road capacity.

3. A headlight-sized radar device on the front of each vehicle locks onto the vehicle ahead, enabling an entire platoon to move down the freeway in tight formation at high speed. The radar scans the terrain ahead 50 to 100 times per second, sending this information to another on-board computer, which determines if the vehicle needs to go faster or slower and automatically adjusts its speed.

4. A Pathfinder navigation system in each vehicle tells the driver if he is on course to his destination. If an accident blocks traffic, the navigation system suggests alternate routes, either on a small video screen near the driver’s head or through a synthesized voice. Later, additional information may be added to the navigation system, such as the location of towing services or restaurants.

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