Summer II 2012: Group 5


This article is about whether smart road technology research is really worth the funding. The main example used throughout the article is Virginia’s Smart Road in Blacksburg and whether it’s funding is being put to good use. After some research on the Smart Road, the group has determined that the Smart Road should redirect its research focus to determining more practical efforts at making the road safer. Of the research found that uses the Smart Road, the findings do not go towards saving lives. In terms of smart road technology, we believe that educating our drivers and improving the physical qualities of our roads is more feasible in regards to preventing accidents and making the road safer. Overall, the funding for smart road technology should be redirected to more practical methods.


Smart road and smart car technologies refer to the application of new and existing technologies, such as information technology or solar cell technology, into the traditionally manual car and road infrastructure. The broad goal of these technologies is to maximize our most popular means of travel by achieving a smart system where cars drive themselves and roads may assist in traffic flow or even add energy to nearby energy grids. A system of this nature would greatly increase the efficiency of our vehicles and effective use of our roads. Although there has been an immense amount of research conducted in these fields already, due to the inherent complexities of the undertaking there is still far more work that needs to be done.

Recently, projects involving smart road and smart car capabilities have come under scrutiny. Some label these endeavors as being labeled as a prime example of government waste. Others who oppose smart car developments feel that reducing driver responsibilities will make them complacent and brainless on the road. Supporters argue that the payoff of these technologies, which range from safer roads to energy production, far outweigh the expense and social affects that may come with it.

History and Background

Smart road technologies primarily focus on how the physical structure of the road can be utilized for more useful means. In some studies the road may help assist traffic flow and aid driverless vehicles by providing real-time data of road conditions; in this scenario smart road and smart car technologies share a mutual relationship. Other studies exploit the road as a means of generating energy through embedded solar cells. Smart road technology research has only begun within the last decade and is a fairly new field of study.

In 1997 the California PATH (Partners for Advanced Transit and Highways) Program successfully tested a prototype for an automated highway system. The program’s primary areas of research include, traffic and transit operations, traffic safety and behavioral research (ITS Berkeley). The California PATH Program was established in 1986 and served as one of the first research efforts at exploring the application of technology on roads.

The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) is another institution that has helped pioneer research fields in smart road technologies. VTTI’s exclusive access to Virginia’s Smart Road has provided them with a state-of-the-art research laboratory to carry out new transportation technologies. Virginia’s Smart Road is a state-funded project that started in 1994.

Before the conception of building a Smart Road, the project had started out as a way to connect Virginia’s largest university to southwest Virginia’s largest city as a means to alleviate traffic congestion on nearby Route 460 (VDOT). Instead VDOT originally began a study of Route 460 for possible improvements but in 1989 the Roanoke County supervisor, Dick Robers, suggested that the proposed link be used for research on smart cars and highways. In 1994 the funds were secured by the state and design and construction of the Smart Road followed suit. According to VDOT, for motorists Smart Road research will lead to safer roads and cars and convenient travel. Aside from providing researchers with a laboratory for smart road technologies, the other purpose of the Smart Road is to provide a direct route from Blacksburg to I-81 (VDOT). Currently, the road does not connect to I-81 and is seen as more of a long term goal.

There is already an incredible research focus on smart road and smart car technologies. There is also a hefty price tag that comes along with conducting research of this nature. While a lot of the research is publicly funded some don’t see the benefits compensating the costs, others feel this research is essential to the evolution of the relationship between the car, road and driver.

Smart Road Techonlogy Research

Though converting the entire United States road system may seem beneficial, some believe that the costs of installing smart roads far outweigh the benefits. Even though facilities exist and provide constant data through a great amount of research, many oppose the smart road technology. Numerous benefits have been gathered from data, but nonetheless, there are multiple people with various reasons that cause them to be so strongly influenced against the technology. Even so, facilities try their best to sway people to be for smart road installations.

As it has been said, research institutions have been trying to prove people’s disbeliefs to be irrational. One of the institutions involved is the VTTI. They currently have exclusive access solely dedicated to research. The road is a 2.2 mile two-lane road which has its own signalized intersection that allows several changes to be made to observer many different conditions. The road also has 400 sensors which transmit a lot of data to a control room. Its control room constantly has researchers overlooking it 24 hours a day 7 days a week constantly working towards safer transportation. On top of having the ability to test multiple weather conditions, different patterns, and almost every possible lighting situation, it presently is also looking into a special technology that converts the weight of traffic into energy to power lights along the road.

Another place committed to the research of smart roads is the Worcester Polytechnic Institute. They have an idea that would not only provide energy for the road, but for its surrounding buildings as well. Their process involves an anti-freezing chemical that would absorb heat from the sun during summers. Then during winters, the chemical would be able to melt snow or ice that accumulates onto the pavement. But during summers, the energy could also be dispersed through homes to heat water and save electricity. Other people also believe that solar roadways would also be able to these same tasks.


So with the benefits of free, large amounts of energy, and having the ability to save more lives through eliminating dangerous weather conditions, why are we not jumping at the opportunity without question? There are specific costs that are too great of a concern to people and they are the actual amount of money required for the project and the time it would take to complete it. For example, if we were to implement the solar highway system, it was calculated that each mile of highway would cost around $4.4 billion(Thom Patterson). The U.S. interstate system alone has almost 47,000 miles of highway so the total cost to convert them would be around $206 trillion. That would require new taxes to be brought since little research grants from different institutes would be nowhere near enough. While the costs are extremely high, energy costs would be cut and we would have a greener environment. However, in order for the energy cuts to start cancelling out the costs and have the smart roads start paying for itself, it would take around 6 years, according to Rajib Mallick a civil engineer at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute. 47,000 miles would also take a ridiculous amount of time to convert into solar roads which would mean constant construction for years. This would cause copious amounts of traffic jams and possibly even more accidents. Until implementation becomes more feasible many will remain opposed to smart road construction.

According to Scott Brusaw an electrical engineer from Idaho, another big force contributing to smart road opposition is that change tends to scare people (Thom Patterson). There are several people in the U.S. who aren’t even aware of the technologies that we possess and the several capabilities they allow us. The ones that do know but still are against smart roads are comfortable with the current arrangements they live with and therefore don’t see the need to spend trillions of dollars. Additionally, with the current rise in the trend of smart cars that allow safer driving we need to consider if the investment in smart roads is needed. Many weather conditions could be eliminated but that does not eliminate the possibilities of human error.

The priority in the researchers’ goals in implementing this system should be increasing smart road awareness. You can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in research but in the end if no one is willing to change, the United States would be left with a huge sunk cost. People need to be convinced that the benefits are worth more than the costs in order to bring them on board.

Virginia's Smart Road

The Smart Road provides a closed testing area for many types of research. There are lab facilities and a closed road with many types of weather conditions. It will be used as a road to connect Blacksburg and I-81 when traffic becomes too much on Route 460. It could be used to test ways for cars to talk to each other. This could prevent accidents and save lives. The road could also be used to test a system that allows the road to talk to the cars so that in the future traffic lights will no longer be needed. Currently the government is testing a system that allows cars to talk to each other to prevent accidents if cars get too close or about to collide (USA Today).


After reviewing Michael Pines’ law firm’s website, they detailed the top 25 reasons for car accidents. The Smart Road could address all of these especially since it has the resources to create several different types of weather conditions. Five of the reasons for accidents involved the weather or lack of light. The others included distracted driving, driving under the influence, drowsiness, and running red lights. These causes can be addressed with research using the Smart Road. An honorable mention is high winds which might be simulated with the Smart Road as well. By learning how the weather affects drivers, researchers can find a way to counteract these to make it safer for drivers.

This research has the potential to save thousands of lives. Cars would speak to each other and prevent accidents; ambulances and police cars will change the traffic lights to allow them to pass through any intersection without incident. It will also make it safer for those who refuse to listen to reason and continue to drive while performing tasks or drive while intoxicated. The drivers as well as others on the road will be safer. Although, with the added safety measures, it might give drivers an excuse to continue performing tasks and driving under the influence since the cars will tell them before an accident occurs. The Smart Road has potential, but it is difficult to find current research actually utilizing this resource.

After searching for research done using the Smart Road in Blacksburg, very few papers mentioned the use of the Smart Road and the VTTI website did not mention actual research projects that are currently using the Smart Road. Many of the sites found mention the applications of the Smart Road and what it could do for research but never mentions what research has been done. By clicking on the “Smart Road” section on the right side, the link leads to general information on the Smart Road yet nothing specific as to the research being done.

Of the research found through the Virginia Tech website, some researchers have been testing the fatigue of different types of asphalt on the Smart Road, testing of falling weight deflectometer, and testing scanning technologies at different speeds and distances for use in toll booths and other technologies. Of these three, none are truly worth the amount of time and resources put into the road. These do not benefit the public in matters of safety which should be a top priority. The scanning technology is to make traffic move faster through toll booths and similar situations, but it is not focused on safety. The fatigue of the road could possibly prevent car accidents by knowing how long it takes for roads to break and create potholes. Potholes are listed as the number nineteen reason for car accidents according to Michael Pines’ law firm. The research for fatigue stated that there is a difference between field testing and lab testing of the pavement, but potholes are easily filled once reported. So while the Smart Road is a good resource, it is too high-end for such a small undertaking.

The Virginia Tech research brochure mentions the uses of the Smart Road as an opportunity “to improve roadway and driving safety”. It also mentions 6 focuses of research that the Smart Road applies to. Two of the focuses relate to human safety. But, of the research found, not much has been done with the Smart Road. The control center is manned for twenty four hours every day. This takes money and manpower to run constantly. While the Smart Road has many applications, of the research found, the Smart Road has not been credited with many projects that could save lives.

Alternatives to Smart Road Technology

The roads that exist today are more than sufficient for drivers to use safely and effectively. Some simple modifications to today’s roads, along with continued research in safer cars and improved driver education would improve driver safety even more. A smart road is not what is needed to improve driver efficiency and safety; better drivers, well-maintained roads and safer cars are what’s needed. Creating a smart road for public use is a vast waste in financial resources for a limited gain in safe driving, and the money can simply be used more effectively for other road improvements and maintenance. In addition, converting Virginia’s Smart Road into a public road is another vast waste in resources. The road was built as a research center; it should be left that way and used effectively. It’s vitally important for VTTI to create a prioritized focus on conducting more research that will directly impact driver safety. The technology of the Smart Road can be used to test many future road improvements, such as better road lighting, and such an expensive facility should not simply be squandered by eventually turning it into a simple linking road, especially when there are almost limitless uses for this road. It could even be contracted out for car companies to test their products, generating money and perhaps creating a precedent for future Smart Road research centers to be built. There are many cheaper alternatives to better safer driving and those methods could even be tested on the Smart Road, assuming it is kept as a research facility.

Some of those budget-friendly alternatives could be modifications to public roads themselves. Some ideas that could help improve driver safety on the road without the expense of building smart roads are better lighting for night driving and increased use of light reflective paint and lane reflectors for the road lines to better guide drivers in poor driving conditions. To improve road lighting for night driving, LED lights should be used, as they last longer and provide brighter road lighting without having to increase the interval of light posts along a road. Another useful and fairly cheap improvement for the roads would be the addition of light-reflective paint for traffic lines, along with the use of light reflectors for all main roads (any road with 2 or more lanes in one direction). This would help people who are driving in heavy rains or any poor weather condition see where they are going and stay in their lane, which would prevent accidents and speed up traffic flow during these conditions. These small additions along with more regular road maintenance would be a huge step forward in creating safer roads. However, a safe road is only safe if the people driving on it are competent, capable, and well-educated. So instead of investing in smart road technology, the main focus should be on educating drivers on safety and how to operate a vehicle in less-than-ideal conditions.


Increasing driver education, especially for teenage drivers, would be what really makes roads safer. A teenager applying for a driver’s license should not only be taught how to drive in all weather conditions, but should have to practice driving in poor weather conditions. A student should also take a practical defensive driving class, which would just further increase a driver’s ability. Imagine driving on a road where everyone knew how to drive in the rain or the snow, react quickly and correctly while driving in a pressured situation, and understood all the rules of the road, both written and unwritten. The amount of accidents would decrease drastically simply because every driver was capable of avoiding and effectively reacting to most situations that cause accidents today. In addition, a new driver should be taught the basics of car maintenance. This would decrease the amount of car breakdowns and equipment-caused accident, which would make the roads yet even safer while saving drivers money and time.

This increase in education would be expensive, and might even require more facilities like the Virginia Smart Road to help train new drivers in the manner described above. However, 20 years down the road this education would pay off in fewer accidents and less lives lost in car accidents. This initiative would be much more valuable than any “smart” road ever could be, because when it comes down to it, the drivers are always what make a road safe or unsafe. Until cars can completely drive themselves without any need for human assistance, a more capable and educated driver will always save more lives than anything else, and this is where our money and focus should be in the near future.


Appea, Alexander Kwasi. “Validation of FWD Testing Results at the Virginia Smart Road:
Theoretically and by Instrument Responses”. PDF. August 9, 2102.

Fedrowitz, Walter J. “Implementation of RFID Technology in
VT-VDOT Highway Maintenance Monitoring Program (HMMP)”. PDF. August 9, 2012.

ITS Berkeley. "California PATH." California PATH. ITS Berkeley, n.d. Web. 10 Aug. 2012.

The Law Offices of Michael Pines, APC. Top 25 Causes of Car Accidents. Web.
9 Aug. 2012.

Nassar, Walid M. “Utilization of Instrument Response of SuperPaveTM Mixes at the Virginia
Smart Road to Calibrate Laboratory Developed Fatigue Equations”. PDF. 9 Aug. 012.

The Research Institutes of Virginia Tech. Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. PDF. 9
Aug. 2012.

VDOT. "History of the Smart Road." History of the Smart Road. VDOT, 29 June 2010. Web. 10 Aug. 2012.

Woodyard, Chris. “Big summer test of ‘talking’ cars coming to Michigan.” USA Today. Web. 9 Aug.
2012. “

Brandy Phillips
I agree with your position on the issue that instead of using so much money on research for the smart road, it should be used to better educate the public on driving issues. As a local of the Blacksburg/Christiansburg area I remember when I was younger when the smart road was being built, and it was somewhat of a mystery. It still seems as if it is a mystery since there is nothing published on any known research that has happened. I think though that if we make a road where the people driving have less responsibility of controlling the car, then there will be even more problems with distracted driving by doing things such as eating or texting. Another issue is that if someone is consistently driving on the smart roads, you have to wonder what kind of driving they will do when they have to drive on a regular road.

Eric Hotinger

My main concern about this article and your position on the controversy is that you routinely neglect to cite where sources are from and you avoid the original purposes of the Smart Road itself. The Smart Road was created for two main purposes: (1) to provide a direct route between I-81 and Blacksburg; (2) to offer researchers a "lab" to develop new transportation technologies ( Your group frequently mentions the importance of marketing and spreading the idea of a new technology so that the actual research isn't being wasted. Well, one of the problems with this is that the cost of marketing far exceeds the cost of the actual research… To polish and output products in a way such as a company like Apple does, it requires a lot more time and money. Yet, you guys are arguing to reduce costs… I think investing in effective publicity and awareness far exceeds the cost of some research like this.

Moreover, I completely disagree about redirecting funding from research into practicality. While practicality is certainly nice, we DO need research for these things. Case and point: NASA. It's a completely valid argument to question NASA's productivity and output in terms of practicality and feasibility. However, how will we ever advance in space-related technologies otherwise? The same goes for transportation technologies. Like it or not, we need these kinds of research and developments because it progresses us as a society. I feel like a better stance would be overall reduction of funding, but I don't think many research programs like the Smart Road exist because it is new and fresh.

Educating the public would cost millions of dollars, and even then, what would you educate them about? We already have the systems in effect for people to be taught in terms of safety and so forth, but people just don't want to learn. I disagree with the Smart Road's purpose being to make roads safer; that is a direct effect of making transportation technologies (like cars themselves) safer — which I think is the true goal of the Smart Road here.

Creighton Bell

This is a great topic. I have always heard about research in autonomous cars and making the car safer, but I have never heard of research into safe roads. I think this is a great idea. Like the autonomous car research, the technology is nowhere ready to be implemented in full scale. However, technologies like backup and lane changing sensors and cameras, self-parallel parking, and automatic stopping are implemented in some, if not all, brands of vehicles today. Research in technologies as sophisticated as a Smart Roads won’t see an immediate use of the new technology, but will lead to slow implementations of portions of the research.

You missioned about using the weight of the vehicle to produce electricity. Something like this could be implemented in new roads, and added in when repairs take place, to power the lights along the road side. It could even be used to put power ports along the road for new all-electric cars to charge on the side of the road. (You can’t exactly walk a mile and get a tank of electricity like you can gas for conventional cars)

Allison Pisieczko

I like the topic you chose. I agree with your argument. I too have heard a lot about Smart Car Technology but have not really learned anymore about it other than the fact that it is a new technology that is being researched. I agree with your point when you said instead of spending excess money on technology research, people should start spending more time educating the public on driving safety and potential transportation hazards. I believe that if this new technology is released to the public which allows people to pay less attention to the road as they do in the first place, several problems can quickly arise.

Smart Road technology is a great idea that in an ideal environment would be a great alternative to transportation. However, it must be taken into consideration the people that operate the vehicles. There have been many car accidents as a result of drivers using and paying more attention to other technologies such as ipods and cell phones. Taking their eyes off the road for a few seconds has resulted in disastrous consequences. I think if this technology is open to the public then they may start to abuse their driving privileges even more because they will believe that this technology is controlling their cars for them.

Also, I think your argument makes a good point about how there should be more information released about this topic. It would be nice to know more about how the process is moving along and how the funding’s are being used.

Ben Stump

I think this topic is a very good choice for this particular assignment. I completely agree with those who think that the costs would outweigh the benefits of converting more roads to smart roads. I think that more information and research should be developed on this topic before they go ahead and make the conversion. I also agree that the money funded for these projects should go to educating the public on driving related issues. This argument was solid overall, and I liked the approach your group took.

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License