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Pictures of the Future
The Magazine for Research and Innovation

Urban Mobility

The Perfect Passenger

Siemens researcher Fritz Kasslatter tests an onboard unit that provides traffic information in real time.

Sudden traffic jams, disabled vehicles — cities are full of surprises. But suppose road users could share information about conditions with one another in real time? That’s what test drivers in Austria want to find out.

Fritz Kasslatter tries to outrun traffic lights every morning. The idea is to go through the numerous lights on his usual route without having to stop or brake even once. Today, he has no problem doing so. He sees a red light ahead and eases off the gas — but just at that moment, the light turns green as if by magic and Kasslatter begins to smile. It’s worked again! Kasslatter hasn’t had to stop for a light once.

His ability to move so smoothly through Vienna has nothing to do with weeks of practice or a good sense of timing, however. Instead, Kasslatter has a small digital assistant that continually provides him with important information on the current traffic situation. At first glance, the monitor that’s stuck to his windshield with a suction cup looks like an ordinary navigation device, as it displays the vehicle’s position, selected route, estimated arrival time, and the remaining distance.

But when his car approaches a traffic light, a digital speedometer appears on the screen and a female voice says: "Phased green lights at 50 kilometers per hour," or, "red light is about to switch to green." The unit is like a virtual passenger who only speaks when the situation requires it, in which case it gives helpful and precise instructions. All Kasslatter has to do now is adjust his speed in order to ensure he won’t see a red light for the entire length of his trip. The secret behind this seemingly all-knowing device is a system that consists of hundreds of cameras and sensors, some of which are embedded in the road as induction loops. Here, they collect a huge amount of data. The sensors can determine how many vehicles are on the road, how fast they’re traveling, where traffic jams or backups have formed, the locations of obstacles, what condition the road is in — for instance, if there is a risk of hydroplaning, or if there is oil or black ice on the road — and when traffic lights will change.

When his car approaches a traffic light, a digital speedometer appears on the screen and a female voice says: "Phased green lights at 50 kilometers per hour."

The sensors were installed as part of the “Testfeld Telematik” project, which covers a roughly 45-kilometer trial route in Vienna in order to test nothing less than the future of mobility. The project aims to find out what needs to be done to make driving in major cities safer, more efficient, and more comfortable. The 14 project partners believe that a key precondition is that all road users communicate with one another. Kasslatter is a project test driver who works at Siemens’ global Corporate Technology (CT) department in Austria, where he is responsible for wireless communication. “We need to collate all the information floating around out there on our roads and communicate it to vehicles,” he says.

Real Time Traffic Information

The researchers’ vision is that communication with the “road” and the traffic control center will enable road users to detect obstacles before they can be seen, and, more importantly, before they become dangerous. It would result in forward-looking, safe, and relaxed drivers, on the one hand, and better informed traffic control centers, on the other. In cooperation with colleagues from the Intelligent Traffic Systems unit, CT employees first developed a demonstrator for the ITS World Congress 2012 in Vienna. The system, which was designed for highway use, communicated with traffic lights and enabled the vehicle to receive data. The developers demonstrated the system to the congress participants in test drives through the city and on the highway. In a field test that began in Vienna in February 2013, around 50 drivers showed how effective the applications were in practice. The drivers tested the “cooperative services” in their private vehicles, using specially converted navigation systems.

“Car2X communication” is the term used by experts to describe the exchange of information between all road users, whereby “car” also refers to trucks, motorcycles, and vans. “X” stands for both other vehicles and traffic infrastructure, such as traffic lights and signs. The data collected in Vienna is sent to a control center managed by ASFINAG, a project partner and the company that operates Austria’s highway network. The system’s large number of data collectors ensures that monitors at the control center always display the latest information on the traffic situation. While cameras deliver images and sensors monitor weather and road conditions, information is also received on park-and-ride parking space availability, public transportation departure times, and service interruptions. All of this data is used to make traffic safer and more environmentally friendly.

Coming Soon: An Integrated Traffic Monitoring System

After making around 200 test drives, the project partners know that Car2X changes people’s driving behavior and helps to make traffic safe, efficient, and economical. That’s because the displays in the vehicles are more effective than the roadside traffic signs used to reroute vehicles around construction sites, for example. Around 60 percent of the test drivers thought the displayed applications were helpful, and almost two thirds would continue to use them in the future. The result would be a better traffic flow, because it would be more harmonious. The improved flow would substantially increase road safety, since it would lead to fewer dangerous lane-changing situations and thus to fewer accidents.

For example, suppose one lane of a city highway is blocked due to an accident. The latest camera images show that a traffic jam has already formed. The traffic management center immediately sends this information to all vehicles in the vicinity. Fritz Kasslatter, who happens to be driving in his test vehicle, receives the message in the form of an exclamation point that appears on his onboard unit. The unit automatically changes his route to avoid the traffic jam. The great thing about this feature is that it provides data that is more up-to-date than radio traffic reports — not to mention tailored to the needs of each driver. “In some cases, traffic reports today arrive too late and aren’t precise enough,” says Kasslatter. “But in the future, every vehicle will also serve as a traffic and congestion monitoring unit that delivers data to a traffic management center in real time. The center can generate a forecast very quickly and use Car2X communication to send it only to those vehicles in the vicinity of the traffic jam. In other words, vehicles will only receive information they can actually use.”

This “Vehicle Internet,” which in the future will enable cars to communicate directly with one another, may sound like it’s still a long way off. But the project has been designed to demonstrate that Car2X can, in principle, work today. However, a number of steps still have to be taken before the system can be introduced on Europe’s roads. Tomorrow’s cars will transmit information about themselves — for example, their average speed — and data regarding the traffic situation. The more vehicles, traffic lights, sensors, and cameras that are hooked up to the communication system, the more precise the data will be that can be transmitted to road users, and the more attractive such services will become for customers. “A single vehicle is enough to measure traffic flow,” says Kasslatter. “However, if we want to know where the back of a traffic jam is, we need to have a suitably equipped car at that location.”

When Vehicles Speak the same Language.

Another challenge is to ensure that all system participants, regardless of the vehicle’s brand or manufacturer, “speak the same language.” In Car2Car, a consortium of European automakers, including BMW, Volvo, and Volkswagen, participating companies have already committed themselves to begin offering customers initial services in 2015–2016. These services will be transmitted directly to cars via radio and will include information on disabled vehicles, construction sites, and location-based traffic data. Road operators are now following suit.  In June 2013 the transportation ministers of Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands signed a declaration of intent concerning the joint introduction of cooperative systems. In cooperation with partners from industry, warnings concerning road construction sites will initially be introduced on highways between Vienna and Rotterdam.  Specially equipped construction-site trailers will use WLAN or mobile radio networks to send information to a traffic control center, which will then relay it to vehicles.

 Cars that are equipped with the associated technology will in turn send information about their current positions, as well as additional data about traffic situations and weather conditions, to the control center. In Austria, all of these measures are being combined in the ECo-AT project. The project’s partners are developing specifications for all of the products and services for cooperative systems. These systems will then be tested on an approximately ten-kilometer stretch of road.

Starting in 2015/16, the entire corridor between Vienna and Rotterdam will be equipped with cooperative systems.

Siemens is also involved in Eco-AT, for which it supplies hardware for the test route. Among other things, it is providing equipment for the traffic control centers as well as supplying the roadside units and communications software. Naturally, data security is also given high priority. Plans call for all of the messages related to safety and transport technology to be equipped with a standardized PKI (Public Key Infrastructure) code. Every vehicle’s ID will be anonymized in order to keep communication confidential. Starting in 2015/16, the entire corridor between Vienna and Rotterdam will be equipped with cooperative systems.

Even though human being will continue to do the driving, the future belongs to Car2X communication. But traffic would become even smoother and safer if vehicles could drive completely autonomously. Whether or not that happens depends less on technical feasibility — which has been demonstrated in a number of research projects — than on costs and public acceptance. Even Kasslatter, after all, admits that he gets something of a kick out of his daily battle with the traffic lights.

Nicole Elflein
Picture credits: from top: 2.picture Testfeld Telematik, 3. Asfinac, 4. Testfeld Telematik