The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute — in partnership with the Virginia Department of Transportation — unveiled four expansions to the Virginia Smart Road on Nov. 14.
The expansions, all engineered to accelerate advanced-vehicle testing, offer an unprecedented opportunity to explore how automated and autonomous vehicles will function on all roadways found in the U.S., including edge-and-corner environments.
Two new facilities officially opened for testing during the celebration: the Surface Street Expansion, an urban test bed, and the Live Roadway Connector, which connects the Smart Road to a public road. The ceremony provided a first look at plans for an Automation Hub and Rural Roadway Expansion. Once complete, the rural roadway will be the first research facility designed to test automation in a controlled rural environment.
“This is a critical time in transportation research, a time in which we are realizing the future of transportation at a more accelerated pace than ever before. Advanced vehicles are no longer a pipedream, the spark of an idea in an engineer’s imagination. These vehicles are here; they are being deployed on our nation’s roads,” said Theresa Mayer, vice president of research and innovation at Virginia Tech.
“Our new testing facilities will undoubtedly enhance industry, governmental, and researcher needs for testing advanced-vehicle technology," Mayer continued. "It is imperative that our faculty and students work closely with such entities to help design, test, and deploy advanced systems for the betterment of the entire transportation community.”
Automated vehicles are often tested in highway settings, where the lane markings are clear and surrounding obstructions are few. However, to operate ubiquitously across a variety of road environments, advanced vehicles will need to be able to handle challenging situations in urban, residential, and rural areas. The new transportation institute test beds — collectively dubbed the Virginia Smart Roads — will meet industry demand to test advanced vehicles in these “edges-and-corners” scenarios to maximize safety and performance benefits.
“The Virginia Smart Roads allow us to expand our testing capabilities, to ensure we can continue doing what we do best: conducting robust transportation research and working with clients who need to solve serious problems and put the best and safest systems on the road rapidly,” said Tom Dingus, director of the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. “To partner with the Virginia Department of Transportation and forge new paths in providing enhanced, efficient solutions to advanced-vehicle testing, design, and deployment is an exciting moment for us.”
The expansion projects include:
Surface Street Expansion
Recently completed, the surface street area can accommodate both urban and residential driving scenarios in a safe, controlled testbed facility. The road’s unique versatility derives from its portable features, which include reconfigurable buildings; roadside elements, such as sidewalks, a bus stop, fire hydrants, light poles, bike lanes, and alleyways; roundabout and stop-controlled intersections; and removable lane markings. All of these “props” can be moved and reinstalled in a matter of hours, enabling researchers to recreate quickly a variety of real-world settings for testing, such as neighborhoods and city intersections.
The surface street also enables researchers to study such growing transportation issues as pedestrian risk in urban environments, according to Dingus.
Live Roadway Connector
Now complete, the connector links the Smart Road directly to U.S. Route 460-Business. The connector facilitates studies in which drivers can seamlessly transition between a live traffic environment and the closed Smart Road facility. This feature will enable institute researchers to analyze how drivers may behave or adjust their behavior after driving under automated mode for long periods of time. The connector also increases the length of the highway section of the Smart Road to 2.5 miles.
Rural Roadway Expansion
Once opened in 2018, the Rural Roadway Expansion will be the first research bed of its kind capable of testing advanced vehicles in a controlled rural setting. The rural track will feature hilly and winding roads, short sight distances, small bridges and narrow sections, off-road sections, embankments, soft grass shoulders, natural foliage overhanging the road, and rural intersections. Built to 1965 standards, the road will allow users to test automated and autonomous vehicles in the most challenging and realistic rural environments that commonly exist in the United States. They are so common that two-thirds of U.S. roadways qualify as rural; one-third are unpaved.
Slated to open in 2018, this interdisciplinary advanced learning facility will house a new internship program focused on accelerating hands-on practical skill development for Virginia Tech students. Interns will have the opportunity to collaborate with researchers from the Virginia Department of Transportation, the university, and the transportation institute, as well as leading automotive industry partners on groundbreaking transportation research and development projects.