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UW Part of Study to Improve Safety, Reduce Traffic Closures on I-80

February 23, 2016
man sitting at wheel of truck simulator
Mohamed Ahmed, an assistant professor in the UW Department of Civil and Architectural Engineering, demonstrates the freight truck open cockpit cab in the Driving Simulator Laboratory. UW’s role, as part of a U.S. DOT grant pilot project, is to train truckers on new technology that is intended to reduce the number and severity of adverse weather-related incidents on I-80 in Wyoming. (UW Photo)

Last April, a stretch of Interstate 80 between Cheyenne and Rawlins was the scene of two major pile-up crashes that involved 135 vehicles, resulted in two fatalities, and had an economic impact of roughly $23 million.

The state’s critical economic transportation corridor -- sections of which are often subject to bad weather and numerous closings during the state’s long, harsh winters -- will soon receive assistance, in part, from the University of Wyoming, which is participating in a portion of a pilot project funded by a U.S. Department of Transportation grant.

UW -- in concert with the Wyoming Department of Transportation (WYDOT) and ICF International, the pilot project’s prime consultant -- is part of a Connected Vehicle Pilot Deployment Program. The pilot program, in its first phase, is intended to reduce the number and severity of adverse weather-related incidents with a focus on the needs of commercial vehicle operators in Wyoming. Sub-consultants include Trihydro Corp., an environmental consulting firm based in Laramie; the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR); University of Maryland Catt Laboratory; and McFarland Management LLC.

In addition to Wyoming, New York City and the Tampa Hillsborough Express Authority will benefit from a $42 million U.S. DOT grant. Wyoming will receive approximately $5 million of that amount, says Vince Garcia, WYDOT’s geographic information systems/intelligent transportation system program manager.

“We’re trying to improve safety and mobility” along I-80, Garcia says. “We’ll be focusing on fewer and less severe crashes, fewer fatalities and a reduced number and duration of road closures.”

Abourt 11,000 to 16,000 vehicles a day travel along that 402-mile corridor in Wyoming, according to WYDOT.

UW to Assist in Pilot’s First Phase

UW’s role will be to provide assistance in various tasks during the pilot’s 12-month concept development phase, which started in late September 2015, says Mohamed Ahmed, an assistant professor in the UW Department of Civil and Architectural Engineering.

“An important role of UW is to utilize our driving truck simulator lab to provide training to truck drivers on the new system and to aid in designing the best CV (connected vehicle) human/machine interfaces,” he says.

The Driving Simulation Laboratory, the only one in the state, is housed in the Engineering Building. As he sat in the freight truck open cockpit cab (a 2000 Sterling AT9500) of the motion-based driving simulator, Ahmed steered the simulation vehicle, shifted gears and pressed on the hydraulic brakes as he watched  a screen provide him opportunities to navigate different roadways, straight and curved, in weather that included a blizzard and blowing winds.

“The open source software designs roadways and surroundings, which can be urban or rural settings,” Ahmed explains. “It provides different roadway configurations, with features that include traction on pavement -- slippery, slushy or icy. We can include ambient traffic, change the intensity of snow and wind, and have the wind blow in different directions.”

Additionally, Ahmed says the software can even set conditions to fully loaded or empty trucks, as well as a certain time of day to replicate when the sun rises and sets. The software can even duplicate the conditions present during the two vehicle pileups during April 2015.

“This gives truck drivers an opportunity to see what they can do in the lab,” Ahmed says. “If there is reduced visibility, they better drive at slower speed limits suggested by the new Connected Vehicle technology.”

While he drove the simulator, Ahmed sometimes glanced at a mini-tablet or iPad perched on the vehicle’s dashboard. The screen showed a map of a long stretch of I-80, from which truckers can cull pertinent information on road and weather conditions, and communicate with other commercial vehicles.

“We’ll use the truck simulator to provide training for truck drivers, and to help design the best interface for these applications,” Ahmed says.

Helping Truckers Through Use of Technology

Focusing on the needs of truckers in Wyoming, the pilot project will develop applications that use vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) connectivity to support a flexible range of services, including weather advisories, roadside alerts, parking notifications and travel information.

V2V technology will be equipped inside commercial vehicles and allow for communication between vehicles. V2I technology will provide information to and from vehicles and roadside equipment, and will use Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC), which functions similar to Wi-Fi, Garcia says.

Information from these applications will be made available directly to the equipped fleets from WYDOT or through data connections to fleet management centers of the various freight carriers. The management centers, through their own systems, then communicate weather and road condition information to their trucks.

“Connected Vehicle is a technology that provides vehicles with 360-degree awareness of similarly equipped vehicles within a 300-meter range,” Ahmed explains. “It helps provide real-time dynamic information about road and weather conditions based on your current location.

“So, you will know about the increased risk before you reach it; the best speed for the condition that you should drive at; or if you should pull over to the next nearest parking area if the weather conditions are not good down the road.”

For example, a truck driver currently on I-80 in Cheyenne can receive information about weather and road conditions at the summit or in Laramie, Ahmed says. This information can help the truck driver decide whether to keep going, pull over or turn around, he says.

“We’ve been thinking about this for some time,” Garcia says of the assistive technology. “We submitted our grant application a month before the big crashes. The big crashes last April were not the impetus for this.”

Where the Rubber Meets the Road

car and semi truck on snowy highway
A truck and a car navigate treacherous winter weather conditions along I-80 near the summit. UW is participating with WYDOT and other entities in a pilot project to develop and test Connected Vehicle technology that provides real-time information about road and weather conditions based on a vehicle’s current location. (Mohamed Ahmed Photo)

U.S. DOT statistics bear this out.

In the past four years, high-wind events on I-80 in Wyoming have resulted in about 200 reported truck blow-overs; 86 road closures averaging roughly eight hours each during the past five years; and approximately $11.7 million in economic cost due to each closure. These incidents occur due to blowing and drifting snow, high winds, fires and visibility issues.

From 2009-2014, there were 94 fatalities, 19 of which were the result of weather-related conditions, along I-80 in Wyoming, according to the U.S. DOT.

Factors in these accidents and fatalities include high elevation, as the I-80 portion in Wyoming is at the highest point along the entire length of interstate; slow-moving trucks cause passenger vehicles to take risks they normally would not; the distances between towns along I-80 range from 50-115 miles; and there is limited parking along the highway and no alternate routes.

While WYDOT provides a number of electronic sign advisories along I-80 for motorists and truckers during inclement weather, a number of challenges remain. The limitations include significant gaps in determining road and weather conditions, which reduce the effectiveness of strategies like variable speed limits and a reduction in the ability to monitor rapidly-changing conditions.

Goals for use of the technology include reducing the number of truck and vehicle accidents; improving the operational effectiveness of emergency responders; improving motorist safety by reducing speed variance; improving truck safety and productivity; improving driver decision making; increasing awareness of road conditions; and, in the summer, improving safety in road construction work zones.

Future Phase Work

The pilot project’s second phase, if funding is secured, is scheduled for 20 months and involves design, deployment and testing of the technology. During this phase, WYDOT will distribute V2V technology to an as-yet-to-be determined number of commercial vehicles (including WYDOT snow plows, maintenance fleet vehicles, emergency vehicles and private company trucks), to collect information on the I-80 east-west corridor, Garcia says.

WYDOT is in discussions with various trucking companies about participating in the pilot study, and more companies are being sought, Garcia says. He adds that WYDOT does not yet know when technology will be available in vehicles, but says that the development and testing of devices and applications will begin as early as Sept. 30 this year.

In addition to equipping 30-40 of its vehicles with the technology during the pilot project, Trihydro will be involved in other aspects of the study, says Josh Dorrell, Tryihydro’s business unit leader - technology services and solutions. Tony English, Trihydro’s IT infrastructure manager, serves as the pilot project’s overall technical expert, Dorrell says.

“Trihydro has been heavily involved in the development of the concept of operations -- schematics and developing the systems to accomplish the goals Vince has set out,” Dorrell says. “We’ll also be involved in security management of the data and the application development planning.”

The pilot’s third phase, if funding is secured, is scheduled to last 18 months. This phase focuses on maintenance and operation.

“This is the future of transportation,” Ahmed says. “But, it’s not yet fully developed or not yet fully tested. That’s why we’re doing this pilot.”

More information about the Connected Vehicle pilot and the pilot planning activities are available at

For a U.S. DOT video of the Connected Vehicle technology, go to


Hear Assistant Professor Mohamed Ahmed describe the benefits of the Connected Vehicle Pilot Deployment Program.Hear Assistant Professor Mohamed Ahmed describe the benefits of the Connected Vehicle Pilot Deployment Program.

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