Reading technology magazines may give the impression that all cars will be talking to each other within months. Connected vehicle (CV) technology can enable vehicles to wirelessly communicate with one another, as well as with intelligent infrastructure. But there is a lot for State and local transportation agencies to learn about this technology and its development, applications, installation, and management. The U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration have resources to help States and municipalities harness this technology, from ongoing projects with the winners of the Smart Cities Challenge to grants and technology demonstrations to help agencies develop and implement CV systems.

One city to take advantage of these resources is Denver, CO. Through a connected system, Denver’s Department of Public Works aims to reduce congestion and improve safety. Connected systems can provide more efficient traffic signal priority, or send an alert directly to a vehicle at risk of crashing into a pedestrian who is difficult to see. Vehicles with this technology can more safely pass other cars on the highway, receive alerts about other vehicles in a blind spot, and report icy conditions to the city so snow plows can be sent out.

In 2015, Mayor Michael B. Hancock selected a team of transportation and technology experts to lead Denver’s submission to the USDOT Smart Cities Challenge. While Denver did not win the competition, the city was a finalist, and the congestion and safety components of the plan using CV technology became the foundation for a different, successful Federal proposal. “It is a compelling technology for city engineers looking to improve congestion and safety outcomes,” says Michael Finochio, an engineering manager at the Denver Department of Public Works. “We wanted to continue to develop it.”

Denver applied for and received an Advanced Transportation and Congestion Management Technologies Deployment (ATCMTD) grant in 2016. The funding went toward three projects that are part of the city’s broader Smart City mission to use technology and data to improve the health, mobility, and safety of all those who live, work, and play in Denver.

Navigating a Tricky Technology

CV technologies and systems are complex and can present a wide array of challenges. For example, Denver’s team installed a roadside unit with a wireless radio device but ran into power management issues on the circuit board and had trouble with the communication link to other connected equipment at the intersection. Unknown capabilities and shifting requirements also challenge agencies exploring new technologies.

“As with all technology projects, though,” says Jim Lindauer of Denver Technology Services, “the best thing to do is to dig in, start small, and learn as much as possible.”

Denver did this by embracing a “living lab” methodology to test innovative ideas and technologies to understand capabilities and limitations before large-scale deployments. The city identified a set of intersections to enable small, rapid tests of new technology, but still ran into difficulties they sometimes struggled to address.

“We were happy to discover that FHWA and the USDOT Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) Joint Program Office (JPO) had experts available to help our team adopt agile development practices,” says Finochio.

Agile is a commonly used project management framework in the tech sector where requirements and capabilities are unknown or change frequently–an apt description for Denver’s testing environment. In April 2018, experts from FHWA offered a technical assistance session in Denver at which the project team learned about approaches to procurement for and management of agile and open-source projects. The day included a discussion of resources available to help early adopters like Denver.

The most immediately beneficial resource was an equipment loan and technical help desk service run through FHWA’s Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center (TFHRC). Established as part of USDOT’s CV Pilot Deployment Program, this service offers agencies short-term loans of the latest equipment and addresses their frequently asked questions based on lessons learned from other projects.

Denver was early enough in the process that the team did not know exactly what requirements to include in a solicitation for devices. “We started testing to see how these devices would work with our existing technologies in a living lab environment,” says Emily Silverman, the Smart City program manager in Denver. “The equipment loan program was the perfect solution. Within a few days, devices were on their way, free of charge, to Denver.”

Borrowing equipment from TFHRC includes the benefit of direct communication with technical support staff. TFHRC’s Saxton Transportation Operations Laboratory works with a contractor to offer Connected and Automated Vehicle Support Services, which includes an online interface at Denver’s technical team collaborated with the support staff to get all of the loaner equipment working with the city’s traffic signal controllers, including older generation controllers Denver’s team had assumed would not be supported.

“This achievement was a big deal for Denver,” says Dave Edinger, Denver’s chief information officer. “Our Smart City team operates from a set of core values, including supporting multivendor interoperability and avoiding lock-in.”

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