I was recently in Washington DC where the sunshine was intermittently interrupted by rain. I was indoors, away from the vagaries of slick roads, reduced visibility, veiling road glare and blinding snow storms. (Okay, there were no blinding snow storms; it was springtime after all.) I was instead soaking up not the sun but interesting and informative presentations from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). These erstwhile institutions are turning their attention to drivers for the very good reason that in the USA weather figures as a factor in traffic crashes to the tune of approximately 7,000 lives a year. Let’s be careful here: weather may not be the primary factor for 7,000 lives lost in traffic accidents per year in the USA; rather, weather is one factor in crashes that claim that number of lives. Yes, this is a large number and worthy of scientific investigation.
Weather may affect driving and drivers at virtually every stage of a journey – from pre-trip planning through tactical maneuvers to detailed throttle, brake and steering control. In my generation, a smarter car has emerged as the braking has been improved with ABS, then further down the line with brake and steering safety via electronic stability control (ESC). But researchers at NCAR believe there is much more than ‘just’ ABS and ESC, as smart connected cars can wirelessly transmit onboard data such as windshield wiper ‘on’ or headlight ‘on’ to roadside units either via short-range communication or to a more centralized or regional station. The aggregated data would provide location-based near-real-time information or in effect a dynamic map of imputed weather, available to road operators and drivers alike. From this, application algorithms and warnings would be developed and provided to the driver’s and/or operator’s benefit, either by allowing the operator to redress or reroute around weather-related hazards as they develop, or by allowing the driver to choose a different time or mode of travel if the weather is frightful. The applications may also provide near-field situational awareness for nearby safety threats.
The NOAA researchers firmly address atmospheric weather; however, in recognition of the road safety problem related to weather, the NOAA direction has been to provide even higher spatio-temporal weather models, nearer and nearer to the road surface. Validation and experience has engendered over time increased confidence of weather predictions to travelers and road operators. It is NOAA’s goal to continue this accuracy to the point that reliable weather advisories would effect better pre-trip planning and allow trustworthy predictions.
In the future, what I dub the ‘embedded meteorologist’ may become part and parcel of a weather-smart transportation system. At the extreme, the national or regional government may foresee impending storms and provide warnings or even trigger evacuations. More normally, travelers would be able to plan the time and conveyance of their trips to avoid weather – or at least understand to drive carefully due to impending inclement weather. At the frontier of safety, very specific and local pockets of unfolding reduced visibility or slippery roads would be provided – a safe NCAR not unlike NOAA’s Ark.
Republished from the June/July 2012 edition of Traffic Technology International magazine
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