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John Hourdos: Connecting the DOT

Written by Eve Daniels

No matter how great we are at driving, we’ve all had our moments of testing fate. Double-checking our Google map. Fiddling with the radio, the heater, the mirrors. Daydreaming about our next new car...

In most cases, fate gives us a free pass. That is, unless we’re driving west on Interstate 94 near downtown Minneapolis, during afternoon peak hours. At that place and time, there is at least one fender-bender every two days.

John Hourdos, director of the Minnesota Traffic Observatory (MTO), says we can blame it on “unforgiving conditions.” Typically, the conditions around our vehicles are forgiving, meaning that we can safely let our mind wander for a second or two.

But not there, and not then.

“In that location, a lot of people are trying to change lanes, and it’s very difficult to find a gap. You’re looking over your shoulder longer than normal, and you’re not paying attention to someone stopping in front of you,” Hourdos said.

To find ways to better manage this area and locations like it, Hourdos and his colleagues rely on a network of video and radar detectors, which provide continuous coverage and transmit the data back to the observatory. Along with live video footage, the data include individual vehicle speeds and headways as well as complete trajectories of vehicles involved in crashes and near-crashes.

All together, this technology makes the MTO laboratory feel like a top-secret operation. Enter the Civil Engineering Building on the East Bank, take the elevator down seven floors, and you’ll find a room full of screens and projections of our bustling traffic landscape. MnDOT supplies the MTO with 16 switchable video feeds from across the metro area.

Hourdos is drawing on this information to develop new connected vehicle systems, which he considers “the realistic stage before autonomous vehicles.” This technology enables wireless communication among vehicles, the infrastructure, and the passengers’ communications devices, ultimately improving driver safety and traffic mobility.

The first stage of Hourdos’ work is reminiscent of the talking LED sign in the early ’90s film, “L.A. Story.”

Using existing sensors and infrastructure, the sign displays warnings for drivers depending on their location. In a few months, we’ll see the signs in action around the I-94 test site.

Hourdos hopes to implement the second stage, vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) technology, within a test vehicle sometime next spring or summer. With V2I technology, the driver will receive messages targeted to that vehicle.

And the “dream stage,” said Hourdos, is to implement advanced vehicle-to-vehicle technology (V2V) in pilot locations. In that stage, everything will happen within the vehicle. Cars will communicate directly with each other, alerting drivers when they should slow down, avoid changing lanes, and so on. Blind spots will no longer be an issue.

“The problem with V2V communication is it only works if all vehicles are instrumented, and it will be at least 20 years until the entire fleet is replaced,” Hourdos said. If that sounds like the distant future, remember growing up without power windows, cruise control, mobile navigation, and airbags? Seems like only yesterday.