Interstate-40 at the U.S. 45 Bypass interchange in Jackson, Tenn. 

Jul 27 2020

Tennessee to Deploy New Smart Highway System

The I-40 Smart Fiber Project is designed to improve driver safety and lay the foundation for autonomous vehicles.

For several years, city and state governments have been deploying a variety of smart roadway technologies to improve safety and ease traffic congestion, as well as to build a foundation for connected vehicle technology, including vehicle-to-infrastructure connectivity. In Tennessee, the state is aiming to do all of that. 

In June, the Tennessee Department of Transportation announced it had been awarded a $11.2 million federal Infrastructure for Rebuilding America grant. TDOT will match the grant with its own funds to deploy the I-40 Smart Fiber Project, which will expand Intelligent Transportation System (ITS) technologies along Interstate 40 between Memphis and Nashville. 

The project is currently under development, with construction expected to begin in late 2021. Brad Freeze, TDOT’s traffic operations division director, says there are big goals for the initiative. 

The first is to save lives and improve safety on the I-40 corridor. The second is to create the foundation for autonomous vehicles. And third, by laying down 143 miles of fiber-optic cables, TDOT hopes to create the conditions to expand broadband in rural Tennessee. 

I-40 connects a great number of Tennessee counties, Freeze notes, and the corridor creates the possibility for future broadband partnerships, according to Freeze. 

Freeze says TDOT performed a return on investment analysis for the project and determined that for every $1 spent on it, the state would reap $7.50 in return. “That just speaks to the safety benefits and the innovation we will be able to deploy as a result of this project,” he says. 

Tennessee Focuses on Safety, Broadband Expansion

Between now and the end of 2021, TDOT will be working to set up a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Department of Transportation, which will take a few months. Once that is in place, TDOT will move forward on programming the project and go through a design and systems engineering process. TDOT will likely work with a consultancy on that aspect of the project, Freeze says. 

TDOT has been using ITS technology since the 1990s, Freeze notes, and has been steadily expanding its use via cameras, dynamic messaging signage and weather sensors. Those elements are all going to be a part of the new ITS deployment, along with connected vehicle roadside units.

The ITS deployment in Tennessee is currently limited to the four major urban centers in the state. The new project will focus on a stretch of rural highway and help alleviate traffic accidents on the Tennessee River Bridge section of I-40, according to Freeze. Historically, it’s an area that has had a higher level of accidents due to weather conditions and nearby topology.

The roadside units will be deployed to communicate with vehicles equipped with connected car technology and will run on dedicated short-range communications wireless technology on the 5.9 gigahertz wireless spectrum.

The combination of IT technologies will help TDOT identify when incidents have occurred, Freeze says, and the deployment of connected roadside units and connected vehicle technology will help make that information more available in real time. The technologies also provide TDOT’s traffic management centers with greater situational awareness, and personnel at the centers can then relay information to first responders, as well as to the public via its website and a 511 system

Additionally, Freeze says, the project will link the states’ traffic management centers in Memphis and Nashville together. “This will help us have better center-to-center connectivity,” he says.

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