Aerial view of SMARTTrack

Transportation has always been a dynamic and fast-paced industry where regulation frequently plays catch up with innovation. A new Texan partnership between academia, industry and state and local governments aims to get one step ahead of the next transportation transformation: the integration of technology to promote safety, mobility and autonomous vehicles.

Texas SMARTTrack is the new Safety, Mobility, Autonomy, Research and Testing regional partnership between The University of Texas at Austin’s Transportation Research Center (CTR) at the Cockrell School of Engineering, Capital Area Metropolitan Area Planning Organization (CAMPO), Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), the City of Austin, Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (CTRMA) as well as industry partners. Their goal is to improve traffic safety, operations and management through smart transportation infrastructure and connected and automated vehicles. 

Cooperation Is Key

Having a transportation infrastructure at all is predicated on the promise by all users to cooperate. Society may be at odds when it comes to many things, but we all agree that stopping at red lights is a good idea.   

In industry, however, competition and cooperation rarely align. The race to be first to market with a reliable autonomous vehicle has driven the technological ambitions of the commercial transportation sector to new heights. While this approach gets results, it frequently leads to a disconnected, and wholly uncooperative, outcome for transportation users at large.   

Traffic Light 2.0  

Hence the need for a neutral player – Texas SMARTTrack – to develop and manage a new collective infrastructure network equipped with the requisite communications and safety tools to meet the latest demands of an ever-changing sector.   

“This isn’t just about planning for the integration of self-driving vehicles into our existing infrastructure. We need to exploit the technological advances being made across the transportation industry to ensure improved safety for all commuters,” said CTR Director Amit Bhasin. “This is an effort to regulate and make sense of all the new variables affecting transportation in Texas and the nation – from autonomous and self-driving vehicles to the regular pedestrian trying to find her way home safely." 

Texas SMARTTrack’s collaborators recently signed an MOU at an event hosted by the Vice President for Research, Scholarships and Creative Endeavors, Dan Jaffe. There is very real excitement that it will facilitate an unprecedented level of cooperation between academia, industry and government to implement a comprehensive suite of measures aimed at creating a scalable template for integrating technologies that will improve safety and mobility for all users of the transportation infrastructure.    

Putting The Horse Before The Cart   

The team will use a combination of two controlled testing tracks, located at UT’s Pickle Research Campus in North Austin, each of which is equipped with a variety of emerging and established technologies to gather info, monitor patterns and inform responses in real time. The two controlled routes were designed to mimic transportation conditions in both urban and rural areas. 

Perhaps the most significant element to Texas SMARTTrack though is the agreement between the various partners on a route for open testing on public roadways around the City of Austin itself.  

“We will embed the same kinds of technologies – AI, LIDAR, and other sensors etc. – as we have on our testing tracks but on public roads, giving us two rich and distinct sources of data,” said Bhasin.    

“This really is an outstanding opportunity,” said Tucker Ferguson, Austin district engineer for TxDOT. “New technologies have been developed so fast already and are evolving just as rapidly. We're thrilled to be part of this initiative.”  

Erika Kemp, director of the Strategic Planning Division at TxDOT, echoed her colleague’s enthusiasm as well as highlighting the potential for Texas SMARTrack to become a blueprint for other states to work from. “TxDOT is firmly behind this initiative and aims to be, not just an active participant, but also help determine how we can scale what we learn.”

Texas SMARTTrack will establish a regional center for emerging transportation infrastructure technology standards development, to enable automated vehicles (AVs) to co-exist with traditional vehicles using infrastructure solutions, and a certification center for technology infrastructure and data solutions to ensure accuracy, reliability, cybersecurity, and privacy of information being processed in real-time for safety and operations as well passively for policy and planning.  

As the aforementioned rural testing track suggests, this isn’t just an urban-centric initiative.  

“Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization covers six counties in the region’s transportation planning body,” said its executive director, Ashby Johnson. “We're delighted to be a resource for this initiative by providing all the data we can to help inform the distinct rural and urban transportation innovations required by each community.”    

In the United States, rural areas account for 20% of the total population but 50% of all road fatalities.  

Bhasin of CTR believes there remains unacceptably high levels of information latency from the moment an accident occurs on our roads to the time it takes for emergency services to respond, especially in rural areas.  

“An incident may go undetected for longer periods in an unpopulated rural area meaning several crucial minutes of precious time have been lost,” he said. 

Texas SMARTTrack aims to make connections between all transportation users, be they rural or urban dwelling, but also all industry stakeholders – be they in the public or private sector.  

Miguel Arellano is deputy Austin district engineer for TxDOT and has been involved in various incarnations of Texas SMARTTrack that previously were focused on reducing fatalities on Texan roads dating back to the 1990s. None of its precursors, however, have matured to the point where there is “buy in” from the automobile industry and relevant state bodies to implement new technologies and regulation informed by the world-class engineering and transportation research expertise at UT Austin.  

“What I think sets us apart is we're already looking at implementation of new technologies and tools,” said Arellano. “We're not looking at research, we're not thinking of conceptual things. We're talking about putting things on the actual roadway. If we can find ways to make our roads safer while simultaneously preparing them for the future needs of infrastructure – both here but also anywhere else that wants to do the same – we can be confident we did something worthwhile for generations to come.”  

The changing transportation landscape may have galvanized this collaboration but its aims are to improve everyone’s experience on the roads, bus lanes and sidewalks. Autonomous vehicles only serve to add a new layer of security and safety risks in a sector already struggling to minimize fatalities. “One person has died every day since 2000 on Texan roads,” said Bhasin.  

And, in the last decade the pace of technological innovation has intensified considerably as automation, connectivity, electrification and car sharing vie to transform how every commuter gets from point A to point B.  

“The pace of change has of course also brought many new and improved safety features, but often only to those who can afford them,” said Bhasin. “Public safety should never be monopolized by those with the means to benefit from it. Texas SMARTTrack is a way to ensure we all benefit from the latest infrastructural and transportation improvements as well as reminding all commuters that the spirit of cooperation is still the fastest route to improving safety for all.”