Snowplows are getting more intelligent this winter, thanks to a new digital intelligence system funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) that equips them with custom sensors to measure road and weather conditions. The system was designed by the National Center for Atmospheric Research and is intended to reduce accidents and save states millions in winter maintenance costs.
And this winter, officials in four states are deploying hundreds of plows with custom-designed sensors that continually measure road and weather conditions. Known as the Pikalert Enhanced Maintenance Decision Support System (EMDSS), it is being activated on major highways across Michigan, Minnesota, and Nevada, as well as on Long Island, New York. If it passes key tests, it will be transferred to private vendors and become available to additional states in time for next winter.
“This offers the potential to transform winter driving safety,” said NCAR scientist Sheldon Drobot, who oversees the design of the system. “It gives road crews an incredibly detailed, mile-by-mile view of road conditions. They can quickly identify the stretches where dangerous ice and snow are building up.”
The new system combines the sensor measurements with satellite and radar observations and computer weather models, giving officials an unprecedented near-real time picture of road conditions. With updates every five to fifteen minutes, EMDSS will enable transportation officials to swiftly home in on dangerous stretches even before deteriorating conditions cause accidents.
Kenneth Leonard, director of the Department of Transportation’s Intelligent Transportation Systems Joint Program Office, said, “This effort demonstrates the value of connected vehicle technologies, advanced weather prediction, and targeted decision support to enable state departments of transportation to more effectively maintain a high level of service on their roads.”
Motor vehicle accidents involving wintry conditions and other hazardous weather claim the lives of more than 4,000 people in the United States and injure several hundred thousand each year. To keep roads clear, a single state can spend tens of millions of dollars on maintenance operations over the course of one winter.
But transportation officials often lack critical information about road conditions in their own states. They rely on ground-based observing stations that can be spaced more than 60 miles apart. As a result, they have to estimate conditions between weather stations. Snow and ice may build up more quickly along particular stretches of road because of shading, north-facing curves, higher elevation, or small-scale differences in weather conditions.
By equipping hundreds of snowplows and transportation supervisor trucks with sensors, officials can now get information along every mile of the roads traveled by the vehicles. The sensors collect weather data, such as temperature and humidity, as well as indirect indications of road conditions, such as the activation of antilock brakes or windshield wipers.
Using GPS technology, the measurements are coded with location and time. They are transmitted via the Internet or dedicated radio frequencies or cellular networks to an NCAR database, where they are integrated with other local weather data, traffic observations, and details about the road’s surface material. The resulting data are subjected to quality control measures to weed out false positives (such as a vehicle slowing down because of construction rather than slippery conditions).
The resulting detail about atmospheric and road conditions is relayed to state transportation officials to give them a near-real time view of ice and snow buildup, as well as what to expect in the next few hours from incoming weather systems.
State transportation officials said the system will contribute significantly to safer roads.