Your car to you: 'Ice ahead. Change routes'

  • Article by: BILL MCAULIFFE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 2, 2011 - 10:07 PM

Sensors on MnDOT plows could help develop high-tech "decision support" system.

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MnDOT is equipping plows with sensors to help determine where and how to plow area roads.

Photo: Marlin Levison, Star Tribune

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The voice that tells you how to get where you want to go in your car may soon be saying, "Slow down in this snow, OK?"

Not in those words, exactly, but researchers are working on ways to collect road, weather, and even vehicle behavior data from moving vehicles, then distribute it immediately to help drivers stay out of trouble.

"On a lot of cars today, you're maybe getting an air temperature reading on the dashboard, but only you get that," said Sheldon Drobot, weather systems and assessment program manager at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo. "Wouldn't it be interesting if we could share that with the weather service, and get a road forecast, and tell people how to get where they need to go more safely, faster and with less impact on the environment?"

Drobot is in the third year of an effort sponsored by the Federal Highway Administration to develop individualized information systems for drivers that could reduce the risks on everything from cross-country road trips to crosstown errands. It's known as "decision support."

This winter, the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) is involved in the research, equipping about 80 snowplows with sensors designed to help plow drivers better gauge road conditions and determine what kind of snow- and ice-clearing chemicals might work best in their location, and how much to use.

"Improved consistency should give us better safety" while also cutting costs, said Curtis Pape, road weather information systems coordinator for MnDOT.

Vehicle computers already can track whether the windshield wipers are on, whether the anti-lock brakes have been engaged, steering patterns and, of course, speed, Drobot noted.

Transmitting that information to a central system, where it could be combined with weather radar readings, pavement temperature and other atmospheric data from roadside sensors is the first step in developing an on-the-road hazard-alert system.

The second is screening the data -- massive amounts, from moving cars in many locations, all gathering information -- for validity. It's one thing for one car on the freeway to be running its wipers, Drobot noted, but quite another for 100 to be using them in the same half-mile stretch, which would indicate it's raining and not merely someone cleaning a windshield.

The third step is transmitting the information back to drivers. It could be through the radio, using a voice or alert, or a text crawl on a screen, "or all of the above," Drobot said.

At the same time, researchers want to avoid introducing a new problem: "Certainly we don't want people looking at radar loops when they're tooling down the interstate," Drobot said. "It could be an alert, or a warning that says, 'Five miles ahead, it looks slippery.'" Developing that technology will probably be a task for the private sector, Drobot said.

Ultimately, the Highway Administration could make road data systems required equipment in cars, though individual owners will probably determine how much information they want, and pay accordingly, he said.

Potential uses

MnDOT is one of only two state highway departments (Nevada is the other) to be involved in the research this year. Pape said the information system could "change the way we do business."

Not only could it take some of the guesswork out of applying chemicals to roads, and reduce a tendency to treat lightly traveled roads as intensely as metro highways, but it could help plow drivers identify and treat trouble-spots more promptly, Pape said.

Even further, it could provide much more, and more precise, information to MnDOT's 511 highway condition reports, improving the accuracy and timeliness of that system, he said.

"There isn't any part of this project that's a magic bullet," he said. "But you put them all together and it's a ton of little improvements that make a big difference. It should, in the end, improve our efficiency, reduce our costs, use less chemicals and improve safety."

Drobot grew up in Winnipeg and recalls an occasion when, as a 21-year-old, he started heading out of town in his Pontiac Sunfire, despite a blizzard warning. Things were fine in town, but on the outskirts, he said, the wind was howling and visibility was nil. He had to crack open the driver's-side door and look down to see the lane dividers on the pavement. With a decision-support system like the one he's working on, the trip might have been less harrowing.

"I would like to have known, was it going to last for an hour, or eight hours?" he said. "Maybe I just needed to hang out and go to a coffee shop."

Bill McAuliffe • 612-673-7646

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