Europe Looks Ahead to Smart Streets

Europe Looks Ahead to Smart Streets

by | Feb 17, 1989

Sure, your car is pretty smart. It’s got anti-lock brakes and a suspension that laughs at potholes. But listen to the depressing drone of traffic reports and its clear that as cars are becoming more nimble , roads are becoming hopelessly clogged. A minor accident can turn  an expressway into a multi­ lane parking lot for hours. The average speed in Europe’s cities has dipped to a mere 9 mph. It’s not much better in freeway-happy Los Angeles -and it’s getting worse.

Unless something is done, predicts a recent study by the Federal Highway Administration, a trip on the freeways 20 years from now will take 2.4 times as long as it does today. Traffic conges­ tion is “something that we must come to grips with , one way or another,” says Thomas B. Deen, executive direc­tor of the National Academy of Scien­ces’ Transportation Research Board.

The answer:smart streets. By allowing the electronic systems on cars to communicate with regional traffic­ control computers – and each other -traffic experts hope to smooth the flow and make the highways safer as well.

Europe is mounting the most ambi­tious effort by far. It’s beginning a seven-year research program, dubbed Prometheus , that will cost an estimated $875 million . The goal is to apply the kinds of technologies that have made air travel the safest way to get from place to place and halve the toll of 55,000 lives now claimed by traffic accidents every year. “It’s cheaper to pay for advanced electronics than to spend millions building new roads,” says Trevor Aspinall, research division manager at Britain’s Motor Industry Research  Association.

Ambitious  Plans.  Daimler-Benz was the driving force behind  Prome­theus. Because the idea was far too big for any one auto maker to tackle, Daimler in late 1986 proposed that the scheme be ad opted by Eureka, the European Commission’s um brella organization for cross-border research. Nearly all of Europe’s car-makers are taking part, along with 70 universities and 140 high-tech companies. They will jointly develop technology, includ­ing computer chips that all will share, and set Europe-wide standards.

To unsnarl traffic, streetside sensors would not only keep tabs on the number of cars zooming by but would also assist their on-board computers in modifying planned routes to prevent traffic jams. Drivers in cars equipped with an “autoguide” system, currently being tested in London and Berlin, would punch their destinations into their vehicles’ computers at the begin­ning of a trip.That information would be picked up by sensors at major inter­ sections and relayed to central compu­ters that would alter stoplight patterns and tell each driver the optimum route to take.

On  the  open  road ,  Prometheus engineers also are considering some seemingly far-out schemes. One is the possibility of using the cars’ electronics systems to link vehicles into “road trains. “These strings of cars, spaced at 100-foot intervals, would be guided between cities at 80 mph . Theoreti­cally, that could increase the carrying capacity of a highway by up to seven­ fold.

Many of the Prometheus ideas about improving safety rely on establishing communications between smart cars. A car that hit an oil slick would send out a signal warning following vehicles to slow. Vehicles involved in accidents would automatically alert passing cars, which would in turn signal traffic con­ trol computers to active warning signs along the highway and summon emer­gency help. Other long-term projects include expert-system programs that would  aid the driver in maintaining control and avoiding collisions.

Prometheus may sound like a futu­rist’s fantasy, but it has worldwide allure. Japan has been on the trail of similar technology since 1973, when the Ministry of International Trade & Industry (MITI) decided that a com­puterized system providing two-way communication bet ween cars and traffic-control computers is the only hope for Tokyo’s massive rush-hour jams . After spending $4 million to $6 million a year, half contributed by the industry, a prototype Comprehensive Automobile Control System (CACS) was unveiled in 1985 between central Tokyo and the site of the  Tsukuba Science & Technology Exposition 37 miles away. “The technology is ready,” says Kohei Koide, CACS planning manager.

Th e MITI d emon strati on h as sparked a confusing array of other government-sponsored programs. In April, Japan’s Construction Ministry tested a network of 74 radio beacons along the crowded Tokyo-Yokohama corridor. Radio signals pinpoint a car’s position on an electronic dashboard map, provide information on traffic conditions, and suggest ways to avoid tie-ups. This three-year program began in 1986 with a budget of $16 million, including support from 25 auto and electronics companies.

‘Chaos.’ This summer, Japan’s Min­ istry of Posts & Telecommunications (MPT), working with 33 high-tech companies, plans to test a service that will combine traffic control with voice, video, and data communication for executives on the go. And the National Police Agency is working with the MPT while also developing its own, somewhat overlapping scheme. “Right now,” says MITI’s Koide, “it’s a state of chaos. But eventually it will all get sorted  out.”

This article was originally published in the February 1989 edition of Zundfolge