Virginia Tech, VDOT Put ’Smart Road’ to the Test

📅   Wed February 21, 2001 - Southeast Edition
Gayle Trent

Virginia’s Smart Road is a joint project by the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) The purpose for the Smart Road is twofold: To provide a direct 5.7-mi. (9.2 km) route between Interstate I-81 and Blacksburg, and to offer researchers and product developers a state-of-the-art research center.

This stretch of limited-access highway will be used to test the effects of fixed roadway lighting and vehicle lighting technologies on driving visibility due to fog and other weather conditions. Developers also hope that Smart Road research will contribute to improved driver safety, to reduction of payment and bridge maintenance costs, and to evaluating and improving advanced vehicle safety systems.

Two vital aspects of the Smart Road are the All-Weather Testing section (.5-mi.) and the Experimental Lighting section (.8-mile). The All-Weather Testing features 75 weather towers that rotate 360 degrees and pivot to accommodate changing wind conditions. The 40-ft. towers are capable of making up to 2 in. of rain per hour, up to four inches of snow, or a layer of ice on a cold road. Who’d want to drive on that? Researchers testing driving technology under adverse weather conditions. But what about the commuters who simply want to get from I-81 to Blacksburg? Traffic will be diverted during testing periods.

The experimental lighting section contains three kinds of overhead lights on height-adjustable poles configured to simulate 40-, 60-, 80- and 120-meter spacings. The lights are 7 ft. from the shoulder of the road and spaced 60 ft. apart. A built-in dimming system helps provided added variability. A planned research project will compare UV headlights and UV-sensitive signs and markings with conventional headlights and markings.

Other unique factors of the Smart Road include fiber-optic cable linking more than 400 electronic sensors to monitor concrete stress, asphalt strain, soil pressure, moisture penetration, frost depth, traffic counts and vehicle speed/weight. Magnetic tape research may be done to provide guidance alarms for snowplows and other winter maintenance vehicles.

The Smart Road’s control center is a 30,000-sq.-ft. building located at the road’s western end. The control center provides monitoring and control of pavement sensors, power grids, surveillance cameras, weather generation, lighting and overhead message signs, and communication with test vehicles. The control center houses office for the VTTI and VDOT’s Transportation Research Council, as well as for companies contracting to use the Smart Road. In addition, the control center contains a garage/workshop for test vehicles.

The Smart Road even includes a smart bridge — in fact, it will be Virginia’s tallest bridge. The bridge has cantilever construction with cast-in place segments and concrete-embedded, post-tensioned steel cable and it includes three 472-ft. spans. A concrete box structure beneath the driving surface will carry power and communication lines the entire length of the bridge. Besides being built to double the strength required by most bridge decks, the “smart bridge” features decorative stone designed to honor Virginia Tech’s Hokies.

The Smart Road is on its way. The initial 1.7-mi., two-lane test track built on a four-lane right-of-way has been completed, and the bridge is expected is expected to be finalized later this year. VDOT and VTTI officials anticipate completion of the final phase by 2008. Cindy Wilkinson of VTTI said she feels the greatest benefit of the Smart Road project is “saving lives and money.” As Phase 3 of the project is still awaiting funding (not to mention construction), VDOT and VTTI are currently performing studies using fewer constraints than will be possible when the road is open to the public. We’ll the Smart Road be as beneficial as its developers hope? Virginians can only wait and see what “inroads” are made.