Imagine a system that allows cars, roads and signals all to ‘talk’ to one another to prevent wrecks. UDOT signs $50M deal to help develop it.

(Photo courtesy of Panasonic North America) A basic warning is shown in a car where workers experiment with a system seeking to allow cars to communicate with each other and a central system to help avoid crashes.

One engineer calls it a “digital seat belt.”

It’s a futuristic system to create a protective bubble around cars using technology that allows vehicles to communicate constantly with one another, with traffic signals and even with the roadway to prevent collisions or other accidents.

The Utah Department of Transportation and Panasonic formed a $50 million partnership Tuesday to take the next steps toward developing this project. They hope to form the nation’s most advanced transportation data network — and provide a template for others to follow.

“As humans, we’re pretty good drivers. But when we get distracted or impaired somehow or drowsy, we have a tendency to cause crashes,” said Blaine Leonard, transportation technology engineer for UDOT.

“We believe these technologies can help the human drivers be better and help the vehicles be better in some cases where the human may not be driving.” He added that it may have other benefits, including smoothing traffic flow to reduce congestion and pollution.

Utah had taken some early solo steps toward such systems, including one on Redwood Road where Utah Transit Authority buses communicate with traffic signals. When buses run behind schedule, the system automatically lengthens green lights to help them catch up.

UDOT has been experimenting with such “connected and autonomous vehicle” data systems for about five years. “We’ve had some success," Leonard said. “We felt like it was time where we needed to scale that up.”

Chris Armstrong, vice president for smart mobility for Panasonic North America, said the partnership aims to allow cars and road facilities to constantly broadcast information to one another about conditions, location of obstacles, signal timing and the speed, direction and position of all cars. With that, it may allow quick or automatic action to avoid most accidents.

“I like to call it the digital seat belt of our generation,” he said. “It’s the data layer that can protect the car from other cars and receive information from the infrastructure about what’s happening on the roadways in any given time.”

For example, if a driver attempts to turn left at an intersection but misjudges the gap between oncoming cars, Armstrong said, the technology could warn about it and prevent being T-boned by oncoming traffic.

“Federal studies have shown that if vehicles can communicate with each other and sort of describe their intentions and their motions, we can prevent crashes," Leonard said. "That’s really, in a nutshell, what we’re trying to do.”

Armstrong noted that new self-driving cars use cameras and radar to judge the road around them. The new technology being developed “can reach well beyond the line of sight so it can reach around curves. It can ‘see’ way up ahead on the roadway, and it can receive information … from the traffic operations center, which sees the whole system.”

(Photo courtesy of Panasonic North America) A control center working with a Panasonic system that allows cars, road facilities and control centers to communicate with each other to avoid collisions.

In the first phase of the new partnership, Panasonic will help UDOT install intelligent sensors along 40 selected sections of highway — which will conduct experiments with a fleet of 30 state-owned vehicles equipped to send messages to the sensors.

“The first thing we want to capture is how do we get data out of the vehicles and into a software package that can analyze all the points of information in real time to provide us with actionable information,” Leonard said.

Later phases will deal “with putting data back into the vehicle and putting data between vehicles,” he said, and will expand areas of experimentation.

Armstrong and Leonard said major car manufacturers have announced plans to include radios in many models within a few years that can deliver such information. Toyota already has 100,000 such vehicles operating in Japan.

“We want to be prepared when those vehicles start rolling off the assembly lines to leverage and take advantage of those capabilities,” Leonard said.

UDOT will spend $8 million in the first phase of what is expected to be a five-year, $50 million project.

Jarrett Wendt, executive vice president of Panasonic North America, said UDOT is considered a leader in the such new technology, so the company is excited to work with it. Leonard said UDOT often speaks at national conferences on the topic because of early experiments and successes.

“We want to be at the forefront of this technology,” Leonard said. “We don't want to wait and watch others do it and then try to figure it out.”

UDOT Executive Director Carlos Braceras said the new technology is “going to start to drive us towards zero fatalities” on the roads.