UNSW's Research Centre of Transport Engineering
NICTA (the National Information and Communication Technology Australia research centre, co-founded by UNSW) has identified transport engineering as a priority for the next five years and thrown its support behind the new centre.
Terry Percival, NICTA’s Research Laboratory Director, says developing smart roads – those that can make choices through traffic lights that can “see” and other sensors built into the roads and then adapt to changing traffic patterns – is a critical part of current transport research. “If we haven’t got it out on the roads in 10 years, then we should give up now,” he says. “If we don’t do something by that time, the cities will be totally congested.”
Part of NICTA’s work with the RTA is occurring right outside UNSW’s main campus, on the intersection of Barker Street and Anzac Parade. The three-year study is assessing how to improve the flow of traffic in changing conditions. “Traffic changes each day, depending on weather, school holidays and many other factors and one of the biggest issues when you make changes to control is working out whether you’ve actually improved things or not,” Terry says.
He says that once such engineering challenges are fixed, other related problems will subside. “Obviously the environment is very important and by making transport more efficient you get environmental benefits.”
Professor Mahbub Hassan, from UNSW Computing, says intelligent transport will be the next big thing in engineering and an area that has been gaining momentum over the past five years. “It’s a worldwide thing, just not in Australia. All different transport entities – vehicles, bridges, traffic lights, roads – everything will communicate and cooperate, exchanging information with each other, improving safety and efficiency of the transport system.” For example, Mahbub says 60% of accidents could be avoided if the driver was warned half a second earlier of an impending crash. This could be achieved if vehicles were all sending information of their location and speed every tenth of a second to every other vehicle on the road.
Mahbub says one of the challenges with such a system that he has been tackling for years is the need for extremely rapid verification and error control. With each package of information, such as an email, part of the package is “handshaking, acknowledgement and error recovery”, Mahbub says. “With emails you can wait for seconds and it’s one-to-one communication. But here we are talking about 500–600 states in a moving environment, all trying to get the information.” The information and error control will have to be conveyed 10 times a second.
The systems – probably in prestige cars only at first – will have limited application until more vehicles are fitted with the communicating devices. However, down the road, Mahbub envisions that the vehicles themselves will make decisions to avoid accidents. “We’re not claiming the road toll will be zero, but even if we could reduce 1,000 fatal accidents by just 20%, that’s 200 lives we’ve saved. There are one million people dying on the world’s roads each year at the moment.”
Mahbub says smart roads will also greatly increase the efficiency of the transport system, with traffic lights talking to each other and emergency services able to respond in less time. “It remains to be seen how the technology pans out,” he says. “There is significant momentum. We have crossed the point of no return.”