Moving you forward: The role of weather sensors in intelligent traffic and the roads of the future

​Daniel Johns
European Road and Rail Regional Manager / Meteorologist
Published: May 7, 2013
Aviation and Road Solutions
Weather & Environment

The world is becoming increasingly connected. Thanks to advances in information and communications technology, the cities we live in are becoming 'smart', with everything from education to law enforcement managed by integrated tech solutions in a bid to improve quality of life.

Changes to transport and the way we get around will be a pivotal part of the development of true smart cities. From cars that exchange information about traffic to vehicles that drive themselves autonomously, the roads in the cities of the future could be quite different to those we see today.

For this future to become a reality, the collection of accurate weather data collection will be key. Aside from human behavior, weather is the single most import factor that influences traffic and road safety, meaning this information will be a fundamental part of the development of smart cities.

With more than 40 years' experience of fixed and mobile road weather data collection, Vaisala is at the forefront of the ongoing progression of this exciting technology that is helping to shape the cities of the future.

Intelligent traffic and connected cars

According to Gartner, there will be 250 million connected vehicles on the road globally by 2020. The organization defines a connected car as a vehicle that has some form of in-built wireless network connectivity, which can be used for functions as diverse as streaming music online to providing drivers with real-time traffic and congestion information. This technology is already available, with figures from Statista showing connected cars currently account for 12 per cent of total vehicles. This share is expected to almost double to 22 per cent by 2020, as connected vehicles become more affordable in the next few years.

While connected cars will provide numerous features for improving in-car entertainment and safety, their biggest contribution to the development of truly smart cities will be intelligent traffic. Road congestion is a problem in urban areas the world over, creating pollution, damaging the environment and generally inconveniencing people's daily lives. Cars with in-built connectivity will help to alleviate this issue by interacting with intelligent transportation systems that provide drivers with real-time information. These vehicles will not only be able to receive data, but share it too, facilitating an exchange of data that allows city roads to become much more efficient. For example, in the US, technology has been trialed that will prompt drivers with the option of paying to enter a carpool lane if they are about to drive into a congested area. Meanwhile, in China, there are plans to develop a system that can monitor the number of vehicles in one area and divert cars away if capacity is close to being exceeded. This way, traffic jams are avoided before they occur.

If traffic is to be successfully managed in this way, access to accurate weather data will be pivotal. Research from the US Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) shows light rain or snow can reduce traffic flow by as much as 13 per cent, while the figure is up to 17 per cent and 64 per cent for heavy rain and heavy snow respectively. With weather conditions having such a significant impact, any intelligent traffic solutions will be reliant on accurate weather data if they are to predict and manage traffic flow accurately.

Most modern cars already contain basic weather sensor technology that allows for the measurement of temperature and for traction control. More advanced sensors are only currently seen in commercial fleet and government vehicles, but, as connected cars become commonplace and the drive towards smart cities continues, such technology may become readily available in consumer cars, allowing for the exchange of reliable baseline weather data needed to manage traffic intelligently and efficiently. Should this be the case, the highly accurate data provided by roadside weather stations will remain key, with the added data provided by connected cars helping to fill in the gaps that currently exist.

Autonomous cars: the next step

Connected cars will be just the start. The next step in the evolution of our roads is autonomous vehicles - cars that are capable of driving themselves. For a long time, such technology has been limited to the realms of science fiction, but, with each passing year, driverless cars are coming closer to reality.

A number of companies are investing heavily in this space. Tesla has already released it's 'autopilot' software update, which uses cameras, radar, ultrasonic sensors and mapping data to allow cars to "automatically steer down the highway, change lanes, and adjust speed in response to traffic". Tesla's approach to autonomous vehicles is a gradual, aiming to steadily introduce new features that remove the need for drivers to carry out certain functions. The autopilot function can only be engaged once the car is already moving at a relatively constant speed, has a sense of the cars around it and a map of the area it is traveling through. Other companies, such as Google, are focused on delivering a fully autonomous car from the start. The tech giant's autonomous cars have already covered more than 1.5 million miles in test runs in the US, although safety drivers have always been aboard to date.

While there are exciting developments taking place, there has, so far, been limited discussion about the role weather sensors will play, other than admissions that bad weather presents one of the main obstacles autonomous vehicles will need to overcome. This technology is essential if self-driving cars are to ever become a reality on our city streets. With weather having such a dramatic impact on traffic - 22 per cent of road accidents are weather-related, according to the FHWA - autonomous vehicles will require the ability to assess and adapt to conditions if they are to navigate our roads safely.

A human driver is able to observe weather conditions and adapt their driving behavior accordingly, although this often isn't enough to avoid accidents, as the FHWA figures show. If autonomous vehicles are to be able to do the same, accurate and reliable weather data will be key. Cars will require the ability to receive and process data and then interpret it to ensure they are driving safely. Only with reliable and accurate weather sensors that can work alongside highly accurate roadside technology will fully autonomous cars become a reality.

The cities of the future

What will the cities of the future look like should connected and autonomous cars become a reality? A glimpse of what is possible is set to be provided in the British city of Exeter. In December 2015, Vaisala joined forces with Exeter City Council and Devon County Council as part of a consortium led by NTT DATA to help implement a ground-breaking, two-year intelligent transport initiative. Drawing on real-time traffic and weather sensor data, as well as other data sources such as eyewitness and behavioral information, the Engaged Smart Transport project will identify where and why congestion occurs and help to come up with solutions to tackle the issue. It is hoped this will help Exeter's transport infrastructure cope with a growth plan that will see 12,000 new homes, 60 hectares of new business land and 40,000 square meters of new retail space added to the city by 2026.

While projects such as this represent the first step towards truly smart cities, what might the urban environments of the future look like once the full potential of the technologies of the future are unlocked? The possibilities are endless. At first, the rise of connected cars could lead to traffic congestion becoming significantly reduced as the exchange of real-time data allows for traffic flow to be better managed and for drivers to make more informed choices. This could deliver wide-reaching benefits ranging from reduced pollution and energy use to providing people with more free time and generally making them happier. Should autonomous cars become the norm, the extent of these benefits may be even greater. With the growing popularity of services such as Uber, it has been suggested that car ownership may be greatly reduced in the future, with people instead embracing 'mobility as a service' and sharing self-driving vehicles to fulfill their transport needs. This would reduce the number of cars on the road further, delivering environmental and health benefits, freeing up space that is no longer needed for parking and, ultimately, making cities happier, better places to live.

According to the United Nations, the world's urban population will have almost doubled to around six billion by 2050. The development of connected and autonomous vehicles and intelligent traffic will play a vital role in ensuring the cities of the future are able to manage this growth and represent a better environment in which to live than those of the past. Vaisala will continue to lead the way in developing the weather sensor technology needed to help make this happen.

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