Jan 26 2023
Data Analytics

Street Smarts: Tampa, Fla., Puts Smart Technology in the Driver’s Seat

Sharing data between vehicles and embedded devices in the city has produced tangible safety outcomes.

Tampa, Fla., is examining how smart technology can enhance residents’ lives, including ways in which connected vehicle capabilities might increase mobility and roadway safety.

As one of three initial U.S. Department of Transportation Connected Vehicle Pilot Deployment Program sites, the $27 million Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority pilot tested the technology from 2015 to 2022. The THEA pilot also involved auto manufacturers, private motorists and other entities.

During testing, researchers outfitted vehicles with dedicated short-range communication-supported devices. These devices exchanged real-time data with more than 40 roadside units throughout the downtown area and Lee Roy Selmon Expressway, which were mounted on infrastructure elements such as traffic signals.

Researchers used information about driving conditions to generate alerts sent to human-machine interface-enabled rearview mirrors and head-up displays. According to Robert Frey, THEA’s director of planning and innovation, these alerts could warn drivers that a line of cars is waiting at the end of a freeway exit ramp, so they can avoid a sudden stop.

“As the vehicle is approaching, it will get a warning telling them when they need to slow down and what the posted speed limit is, so they don’t come into those areas too hot, hopefully reducing the number of rear-end crashes,” Frey says.

Similarly, an alert can inform a driver if they’re heading into oncoming traffic at an interchange ramp entry point, Frey says. A warning about a wrong-way driver would also flash on other motorists’ screens, and local law enforcement would be contacted.

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Connected Vehicle Technology Warns Drivers in Advance

The Autonomous-Connected Mobility Evaluation program at the University of South Florida’s Center for Urban Transportation Research, which analyzed data from the THEA pilot, found that connected vehicle technology can produce a tremendous amount of valuable data.   

“Connected vehicle technology really provides a way to be warned in advance when you don’t see the danger,” says Sisinnio Concas, program director of the center. “Sharing this information with nearby vehicles helps make the rest of the traffic system safer. Also, analyzing patterns over time, we can help an agency make informed decisions; for example, which areas of the network are more prone to crashes.”

The THEA pilot produced impressive accident-avoidance results, preventing 17 potential auto crashes and 21 pedestrian collisions, Frey says. The pilot also warned 14 wrong-way drivers and provided 19 red light violation warnings. Nearly two-thirds of the participants reported that they were somewhat to very satisfied with the technology, according to Frey.

“Most of our problems on the roadway come from safety issues,” Frey says. “If we can figure out ways to reduce the number of crashes and clear them quicker, then we can reduce delays and let people manage their lives in a less stressful way.”

Detailed roadway-related insight may also enhance speed harmonization efforts.

“It gives us travel times and it allows us to help people understand the best route,” Frey says. “If we’re able to increase the number of vehicles that move through the system at the optimal speed — and some of the researchers showed we could add maybe 30 to 40 percent more trips onto our current infrastructure — we could delay widening and adding new lanes by 10 or 15 years.

“There’s a huge value there, costwise, and in being able to manage and provide infrastructure in other places.”

Robert Frey
Most of our problems on the roadway come from safety issues. If we can figure out ways to reduce the number of crashes...then we can reduce delays.”

Robert Frey Director of Planning and Innovation, Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority

Open Data Supports Collaborative Technology Projects

While policymaking and manufacturing efforts would likely need to advance for connected vehicle systems to become widely available, Frey says THEA has applied for grants to further its research work.

In recent years, other technology-based efforts to augment city operations have been underway in Tampa — including increasing public access to geographic information system-related information. Because the city developed many of its systems internally, departments didn’t always have consistent address information, says Russell Haupert, Tampa CIO/CTO and director of the city’s technology and innovation department.

Roughly a decade ago, the city started incorporating a more comprehensive GIS infrastructure utilizing ESRI software, and it has launched an open data hub. Residents can now view a map showing locations associated with calls made to the police or find out department performance metrics like the average wait for pothole repair. They can also learn which areas might flood if a hurricane or tropical storm causes coastal water levels to rise.

“In our partnership with Hillsborough County and other places, we found we often had to share a lot of the data and were exchanging shapefiles,” Haupert says. “The beginning of it was a practical approach to say, ‘If we make this available, it’ll save us a little bit of time.’ The transparency movement in government was really moving along, so having an open data initiative really made sense.”

LEARN ABOUT: How municipalities are using autonomous vehicles to expand citizen mobility.

Sending Data to Citizens Achieves Daily Tasks

The city has implemented other smart technology. A recently launched pilot involves Moovit, an Android- and iPhone-accessible multimodal trip planning app. Moovit allows citizens to plan and pay for transit journeys that include buses, electric scooters, rideshare services and other options.

Tampa also recently introduced an app that can assist visually impaired residents with wayfinding in buildings, such as Old City Hall in the downtown area.

“We put a set of Bluetooth beacons to help folks with lower visual capability navigate and find offices,” Haupert says. “We tie certain data points to them, so a person who’s using that to navigate will get an audible ping. When they hit one of those beacons, it’ll say, ‘You’re in this hallway, and here are the offices that are adjacent,’ and give them that auditory lay of the land you couldn’t get otherwise.”

Elsewhere, Tampa is engaged in a large-scale sewer and water system update, which is part of its Progressive Infrastructure Plan to Ensure Sustainability program. The city is also considering an advanced water metering system to provide greater access to leak detection, daily usage data and other information through a customer portal, Haupert says.

“That real-time access to data is really what’s going to be a big deal,” he says. “Having to read meters individually once a month has some limitations. Logistically, it can be difficult. Making this kind of move just puts us in a place to make our billing more accurate and planning for future usage a lot easier,” he says.

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