Thoughts about Road Weather, Autonomous Vehicles, and How the Technology May Evolve
Melanie Scott, Marketing Manager at Vaisala and contributor to Vaisala News, interviewed Mr. Johns to ask about his thoughts on the future of road weather.
Vaisala News (VN): Hi, Danny. Tell me a little about your role at Vaisala.
Danny Johns (DJ): Hi, I am the business manager for Vaisala Road and Rail customers. My main role is to ensure a good business, of course, but we focus most heavily on making sure Vaisala produces what our customers need.
VN: From your bio I understand that you have been with Vaisala for a while. In your experience, what has been the most interesting application of a roadway product that you have seen?
DJ: Interesting question! Actually one of the things that got me interested in Vaisala, right at the start, was the introduction of the non-invasive road sensors. I remember seeing that there was a way of measuring the slipperiness of the road surface, and I immediately thought of a number of ways that road safety, in particular, could be improved from this kind of knowledge. I joined Vaisala very soon after that!
VN: An inspiring start! I love it! With your mind thinking of all the ways to use the sensor technology, both then and now, what do you think the biggest challenge is for your customers?
DJ: Unfortunately, I think right now the main challenge is finding the budget to do things. Many of our customers are world leaders in their profession and know what could be done, however finding the money to do them is another matter. Hence, the biggest challenge is finding the right balance between spending, and improving the traveling public's experience on the highway, while meeting the challenges of the economic situation.
VN: Good point about balancing spending with public demand, and their experience on the highway. How do you picture transportation in the next 20 years? Will we all be driving autonomous or connected vehicles? How might your customers manage roadway maintenance in the future?
DJ: Autonomous, yes, eventually, but it is a long way off. I think much more likely will be a massive increase in assisted driving. It has already started with adaptive cruise control, but as time goes on, we will rely more and more on the information that is delivered to our vehicles to help us make smarter choices about the route we take, and the speed at which we travel. In the end, the definition of assisted driving and autonomous will become blurred, and we will kind of drift into it without the fanfare currently being hyped. Technology will definitely improve our safety and driving experience. And with time, those decisions will become more and more automated without us noticing.
VN: I am not sure that I am ready for an autonomous vehicle, so I am relieved to hear you say it is a long way off. What about the role of weather information? How important is it today, and how will it change for the future, especially as assisted driving becomes a bigger part of our travel experience?
DJ: [Weather information] is a vital component. Currently in adaptive cruise control, you can set the distance to the next vehicle and take your foot of the pedal. However, that distance should really be governed by how slippery the road is - too close and it is extremely dangerous - and that is just when the road surface is wet!!! Weather plays a part in all our lives, and in such a way that often we don't even notice the changes we are making in our behavior. When it comes to driving, our behavior behind the wheel changes as well, depending on the conditions. Any autonomous or assisted driving needs to take this into account to ensure safety at all times. It may be that it copes better than a person, but cope it must, one way or another.
VN: I agree, it was raining during my commute into work yesterday, and I left more space between my vehicle and the vehicle in front of me. Personally, it would be hard for me to trust an automated system at first, but as technology advances, and with accurate information I could adapt to it, as I'm sure others would be able to accept it. But thinking about weather, what are the best tools for managing the impact of weather? Where will drivers and roadway agencies get information to make decisions?
DJ: Yes, how many times do you leave enough space only for someone to move into the gap! As we move forward, this is probably the most open area of debate - big data is the buzz word, and all that means is information overload. Data is now becoming widely available from many sources - some entirely new in the big scheme of things, such as social media. Companies now exist that will analyze Twitter feeds to get information about road conditions. However, what professionals in the market need is targeted information synthesized from all this potential noise. The key is understanding the trigger points for action, or change, and being able to analyze all this data to be sure that a certain event is happening in any given location.
That is what big data should be about, not just being able to gather anything and everything and pass it on. When it comes to weather, it will be a mix of highly accurate observation points providing reference information, in partnership with data from all these other sources to help in-fill the data sparse areas. So, it will be a combination of different sources to give a total view at any given time. If managed correctly, then it will be obvious to the decision maker what needs to be done.
VN: I like your reference to noise, because it can feel that way when you are checking traffic conditions on Twitter before you leave, getting radio broadcasts about traffic incidents, reading signs along the highway, and notifications from other apps. With all of the information available, do you think we'll ever see a reduction in traffic delays due to weather?
DJ: Actually, yes I do. Managing traffic with respect to weather is one of the big areas of possible improvement as we go forward. Vaisala are currently involved in a Smart City project in the UK, in Exeter, where we are looking at the way big data and weather can be merged to decrease congestion in the city. So, lets hope we find out some cool stuff in the next year or so, that can help us all get to work with less variability in journey times - no matter the weather.
VN: That would be fantastic! I look forward to hearing more about that. Thank you for your time today. Do you have any last words about the weather?
DJ: I can talk about the weather all day long - after all it is what we Brits do all the time anyway! The reason for that, of course, is that it affects everything we do - we ignore it at our peril, but actually if we are smart about it we can improve all our lives.