Tampa's goal to become a smart city were on display on Monday, as the Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority hosted the first public demonstration of a connected vehicle technology research project that will launch into pilot testing in 2018. The project involves outfitting a fleet of 1,600 privately owned vehicles with technology that will communicate with roadways and other cars in order to receive various warnings and alerts about roadway conditions, speed limit changes, dangers, and more.
The project will also connect 10 buses in the area to communicate with traffic signals, which will then prioritize the buses' movements so they can stay on schedule. 10 streetcars will use the technology to detect when another connected vehicle is about to cross their tracks, in order reduce the chance of collisions.
An accompanying app for 500 pedestrian testers will be a part of the project, too, but was not on display today. This app will issue "walk" alerts at various intersections and will audibly signal if a bus or streetcar begins moving nearby.
Above: a roadside unit installed on Tampa's Meridian Ave.
The deployment of this technology is part of the Tampa Connected Vehicle Pilot, one of only three large-scale connected vehicle system implementation efforts taking place across the U.S.
In New York, for example, the goal is to test connected vehicles in a dense, urban environment. Meanwhile, the project in Wyoming is focused on outfitting trucks along I-80 - a stretch of roadway where conditions are often hazardous due to extreme weather like blowing snow, fog and high winds.
Tampa, however, is the only one of the three Connected Vehicle projects involving local residents driving their own cars.
Above: an antenna on a connected car
The city had beaten out others like Charlotte, N.C. and Pittsburgh, PA, for the D.O.T.'s $21 million in grant funding, we understand.
The project, notably, represents a big win for Tampa, given its goal to become known as a hub for smart city technologies.
Tampa also recently launched an UrbanTech accelerator focused on smart city startups in partnership with Dreamit. The incubator is part of a larger, $3 billion downtown revitalization effort backed by real estate developer and Tampa Bay Lightning owner, Jeff Vinik and Bill Gates’ Cascadia fund.
Tampa's unique traffic congestion issues and medium-sized downtown also helped it earn the U.S. D.O.T. grant for connected vehicles.
For example, inbound commuters on Tampa's Lee Roy Selmon Expressway's reversible lanes often experience delays and rear-end crashes during morning commutes.
"The whole idea is to have drivers aware of their environment - when a light is about to change, or if there's congestion ahead, or if there's a pedestrian in the crosswalk," explained Vic Bhide, Chief Traffic Management Engineer for the City of Tampa. "This pilot is about vehicles, about infrastructure, about pedestrians, and eventually, about bicycles as well," he said.
In Tampa's project, volunteer drivers will have their vehicles outfitted with a smart rearview mirror that communicates a variety of alerts, including when the vehicle detects other traffic ahead has slowed or stopped; if the driver is going the wrong direction on a roadway; if the speed limit changes; if a pedestrian is in their path; and other information.
Cars will also have antennas for sending and receiving data, a speaker for audio alerts, and a short-range radio for communicating with other cars, lights, and crosswalks.
Siemens is developing the 40 roadside units that will communicate with the connected vehicles as well as with the city's Transportation Management Center using a dedicated short-range communication technology (DSRC).
Above: the Siemens roadside unit, close up
The roadside units' installed cost is around $11,000 to 12,000, we're told, and they're expected to last 10 to 20 years, given that the SIM card inside can be swapped out as newer wireless technologies are available.
Data from the vehicles will be displayed on a dashboard-like interface at Tampa's Transportation Management Center, showing things like travel times, speed and congestion. The dashboard, a part of Siemens' Concert software, can also incorporate CCTV feeds, and can be upgraded to include parking availability information.
Before, this sort of traffic data would have been collected manually, across sources. The new dashboard will pull in the connected vehicle information into an easy-to-read interface.
Above: Tampa's Transportation Management Center; Siemens' Concert software
Another vendor, Brandmotion, is working with radio providers Savari, Commsignia, and Sirius XM to supply the onboard units that are installed in the cars.
On Monday, the Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority (THEA) allowed attendees to ride as passengers in connected cars on a closed roadway, to show how the alerts worked for things like stopped traffic, wrong way warnings, and speed limit changes.
The system worked as promised during the tests, flashing warnings to drivers on the smart mirror, and signaling them with audible alerts, at times.
The larger goal with Tampa's project, which runs for 18 months, is to collect information about connected vehicles in a real-world environment, including everything from the system's interoperability with different vendors, how the interface for drivers should look, what sort of infrastructure is required by cities, and what impact it has on traffic patterns and roadway incidents.
But it's also the first step towards a future system that would combine connected vehicle technology with autonomous vehicles. This would allow for smarter cars that aren't just sensing things around them while driving themselves, but are also aware of their place within the larger flow of traffic.
Of course, with internet-connected technology in general, there are always privacy concerns.
However, we're told the data collected from the project does not include personally identifiable information, like drivers' names, license numbers, VIN numbers, etc. Instead, cars are only assigned an ID number to differentiate themselves from one another.
Above: example warning messages displayed on a demo unit
Beyond the driver safety component associated with this technology - considerations that may one day see insurance companies incentivizing the use of such systems - the collected data can help cities make better decisions about infrastructure needs.
"A simple example is that we design facilities based on safety factors like how many crashes have been there," said Bhide. "If there aren't enough crashes, we don't recommend certain improvements. But there might have been a lot of near-misses," he added. "Do we really need to wait for crashes for [improvements] to happen?"
Tampa is still recruiting drivers to volunteer for the project, and is offering a 30 percent discount on select tolls as an incentive. Any vehicle under 10 years old is eligible to be outfitted with the technology, with the exception of convertibles (due to where antennas have to be mounted.)
Already, 1,300 drivers applied via the pre-screening process, and some 800 have scheduled an appointment to have the system installed by technicians at Hillsborough Community College's trade school.
The Tampa Connected Vehicle Project kicks off in early 2018, beginning with equipment installations into volunteers' vehicles. The app for pedestrians will be made available in spring 2018, as well.
This article originally appeared on TechCrunch.