SALT LAKE CITY — Imagine a sentient roadway that was able to text you a heads-up about black ice on that curve ahead or share an advisory about a dangerously aggressive driver that’s coming up fast behind you.

While autonomous vehicles will one day — and in the not-too-distant future — dramatically reduce the mostly human-induced hazards of driving, new technology now being tested in Utah could start saving lives and time stuck in traffic in just the next few years.

V2X (meaning vehicle-to-everything) communications technology is the brains behind a system that allows automobiles to communicate to each other and the outside world details about what’s happening in the vehicle. Those include things like speed, location, if the windshield wipers are on, whether anti-lock brakes or anti-skid mechanisms have been engaged and outside ambient temperatures. This information, when gathered from multiple vehicles in a particular area can then be processed to pinpoint in real-time approaching accident scenes, inclement weather, hazardous road conditions or even the erratic maneuvers of an impaired or aggressive driver.

Utah Department of Transportation technology engineer Blaine Leonard said his agency has launched a five-year program to deploy and test V2X systems on some of Utah’s most hazardous roadways with a single goal in mind — improving the safety of drivers and their passengers.

“The real key is the long-term plan to improve safety on our roads,” Leonard said. “This is a technology that is unique in that while we’re still waiting for coming autonomous vehicles, V2X is here now, usable now and ready to give us a benefit.”

Leonard said UDOT has installed 80 roadside radio units that can receive and retransmit data from cars and other vehicles equipped with emerging 5.9-gigahertz radio transmitters, a section of bandwidth that’s been reserved specifically for next-generation safety equipment. He said UDOT chose Utah roads that create the most challenges for drivers and includes sections of Parleys Canyon, Big Cottonwood Canyon, U.S. 40 and state Route 248.

Leonard explained the necessary data is already coursing through the circuits of today’s advanced, computer-controlled vehicles. When cars can share that information with a digital platform capable of processing it and identifying potential issues, that’s when the beauty of the system comes through.

Say one SUV after another is engaging its anti-lock braking system in one of Big Cottonwood Canyon’s S-curves on a snowy winter day. With V2X, drivers on both sides of the icy patch would get notifications within moments of the detection, letting them know exactly where the problem was and to slow down ahead of the hazard. Ditto for an accident or obstruction like a snowslide. The information could be analyzed and shared in seconds, allowing drivers time to avoid the area or delay travel, far faster than any human-dependent system.

How drivers would get that message goes to still-evolving new car technology. Leonard said it could be a text that appears on a dashboard or touchscreen display, a warning that appears on one of the new, see-through heads-up displays just now becoming available or could even be a voice message that plays through a vehicle’s audio system.

Through a competitive bid process, UDOT partnered with electronics giant Panasonic for the V2X project, a company perhaps best known for its consumer products but one that has a 60-year-long connection to the automotive manufacturing industry. Panasonic is the maker behind a slew of wow-now car gadgetry including some of the bigger-is-better touch screen displays and LCD dashboards now in new cars. The company is also a 51% partner in the GigaFactory that makes the high-tech batteries that go into Tesla electric vehicles.

Panasonic Vice President Chris Armstrong said his company leaves the manufacturing of the V2X hardware to others, but is focused on innovating the communication platform that puts all the vehicle telemetry to work. Armstrong said the technology is capable of identifying and sharing critical safety information in a way that will help keep people safe from harm while also, potentially, saving them a lot of time sitting in traffic.

“Today when a car crashes on the highway because of an aggressive move or poor conditions, somebody has to call 911,” Armstrong said. “ We know in Utah that can be as long as 10-15 minutes before traffic operations is notified and can react. If they get notified in a second, they can reroute traffic, help with emergency response time. When you know what’s happening fast you can take action and alert people fast.”

And that fast response time cannot only lead to faster emergency assistance for those who need it, but can potentially save a lot of time and frustration for drivers who unknowingly get stuck in the gridlock that accompanies accidents.

According to data from the U.S. Department of Transportation, for every one minute a lane is blocked, a driver behind that stoppage will be delayed 4 minutes. The same report indicates U.S. drivers burn more than 2.8 billion gallons of fuel every year stuck in incident-related traffic, lose nearly a full workweek — 36 hours — sitting in traffic congestion and that costs associated with lost wages and medical bills in those incidents has jumped 85% in four years. While automobile fatalities have been on a slight downward trend the last few years, over 36,000 died on U.S. roads in 2019 and the vast majority, well over 90%, track back to human error.

Armstrong said only a select number of vehicles available in the U.S. are currently being equipped with the radio transmitters that can engage with other V2X-capable vehicles and infrastructure, but that’s about to change dramatically.

In April, the Alliance for Automotive Innovation announced the U.S. automotive industry was taking its “biggest step toward widespread deployment of vehicle-to-everything (V2X) technologies” with a commitment to deploy at least 5 million V2X radios on vehicles and roadway infrastructure within the next five years. 

“This commitment represents more than 50 times the number of devices on the road today,” Auto Innovators President and CEO John Bozzella said in a statement. “This commitment by automakers clearly shows that these lifesaving technologies are ready and can be deployed in significant numbers in the next five years.”

Armstrong said some automakers have been resistant to embracing the new technology and drew analogies between the pushback facing advocates of V2X currently to the challenges that seat belt supporters ran into before the restraints became federally required for all passenger vehicle seating positions in 1968. But like that lifesaving innovation, he believes the V2X systems are poised to become standard equipment in all passenger vehicles.

For now, Utah is moving forward in preparation for more widespread deployment of the V2X equipment and the pilot network is being put through its paces with transmitter-equipped UDOT vehicles and plans in the works to add additional fleet vehicles to the project.

Both Leonard and Armstrong noted the potential uses for the systems are numerous. While early detection applications will be focused on incident and road condition issues, future uses could include notifications for things like potholes, wider congestion management and even flash-notices about aggressive driving. To help explore how far and wide V2X could be put to use, the data being gathered in the pilot will be made available for third-party application development.

Leonard underscored that personal privacy issues are at the front of the agency’s concerns as the new technology continues to evolve.

He noted all data coming from vehicles is devoid of any personally identifying information or even information that identifies the vehicle itself beyond its size. And, Leonard said, each data transmission carries an accompanying digital security certificate similar to those used in e-commerce transactions to verify each exchange is protected.