Smart barriers show potential to reduce ‘run-off-road’ vehicle crashes

Computer Science

Jeff Wilkerson, November 28, 2018

Smart barriers show potential to reduce ‘run-off-road’ vehicle crashes

In the United States, more than half of fatal vehicle crashes are “run-off-road” crashes – a single car leaves the pathway and collides with a tree, rock, wall or other fixed object.

In addition to heartache, each fatality – more than 37,000 in 2017 – costs society approximately $9.4 billion, according to 2014 data from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

That’s why Husker researcher Mehmet Can Vuran is working with roadside safety experts Ron Faller and Cody Stolle from the university’s Midwest Roadside Safety Facility, and vehicular networking expert Eylem Ekici from Ohio State University, to build next-generation roadside infrastructure featuring connected, radio-equipped barriers capable of communicating with cars. The team recently received a $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to advance this work.

Vuran, Susan J. Rosowski Associate Professor of computer science and engineering, talked to the Office of Research and Economic Development about his efforts to modernize roadside infrastructure and bring it into the same era as the autonomous, self-driving cars of the near future.

How will the technology you’re developing avert run-off-road accidents?

Our connected barriers concept will help roadside barriers communicate with cars. Accordingly, cars will have more information to make better decisions. There are lots of factors that play into decisions – for example, are you going to steer or break? – that are made split seconds before a crash. These decisions depend on several factors including the road’s curvature, type of pavement and roadside barrier, and other structures on the side of the road. This is the type of information we want the connected barriers to communicate to the vehicle, which could then either help the driver or take over control from the driver to avoid or mitigate accidents.

Describe how these connected barriers would work. How would they communicate with cars?

The short answer is that we don’t exactly know yet. That’s what the NSF project is all about: to figure out how to establish robust communication between vehicles and barriers in the moments before a potential crash. We’re evaluating the wireless channel characteristics between barriers and vehicles. This involves studying how different types of antennae on different types of barriers impact communication.

With this grant, we’re doing something we haven’t been able to do before: wireless experiments during crash tests, in collaboration with the Midwest Roadside Safety Facility. Ultimately, this has significant potential to prevent traffic accidents, fatalities and injuries.

How do you envision this technology being implemented?

Right now, this is still a basic wireless communications research problem. We’re about five to 10 years out from any commercial projects. One would probably start with retrofitting existing barriers and expand from there. They would start in high-risk zones – those sites where you see more accidents – then gradually expand. They will have to deal with the cost issues of embedding the technology and making sure the infrastructure is compatible with autonomous vehicles.

What advantages have you had in conducting this research at Nebraska?

One of our biggest strengths at UNL is that we have access to real-life crash tests. Faller (director and research professor for the MwRSF) and his team have been extremely helpful in letting us use our radios during crash tests. Before, we couldn’t simulate or model our ideas with high precision.

Also, Nebraska has the right interdisciplinary expertise in wireless communications, wireless networking and barrier design. And we’re collaborating with Ohio State University, which has complementary experience in vehicle networking. The team is working really well together – everyone is interested in continuously moving to the next thing. That’s hard to find.

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