Founded in 1988, the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) focuses on intelligent vehicle and infrastructure research. Although it started with only 15 employees, VTTI has grown into the second largest university-level transportation institute in the U.S. with more than 500 employees.
VTTI’s research mainly studies the safety aspect of vehicle technology. According to Michael Jared Bryson, mechanical systems group leader at VTTI, VTTI’s research funding mainly comes from federal departments, state departments and the private sector.
“For the 20 years that I've been here, even preceding, VTTI has been helping with the latest safety technology that is being integrated into vehicles,” Bryson said. “Long before you see things like backup cameras, there is research that occurred at VTTI to facilitate, to better understand the implications of new technologies like that.”
The Smart Road is a closed testing facility at VTTI and was formerly known as the Virginia Smart Road. It was built in 2000 and received several expansions throughout the years. According to Anne Deekens, technical communicator for VTTI, the Smart Road is one of the world’s most advanced testing facilities for transportation and safety research. In 2017, the Smart Road logged more than 26,000 hours of research on the road.
When it was first built, the Smart Road was a 2.2-mile-long highway style construction with two lanes and a loop at each end. The Smart Road received two major expansions in 2017 which added the live roadway connector and the surface street expansion to the Smart Road and increased its overall length to 2.5 miles. The facility is designed to simulate a highway and street roadway environment.
The Smart Road is equipped with lighting and weather control systems. The weather control system is able to create driving conditions under the influence of rain, snow and fog. The lighting system can recreate 95 percent of the lighting conditions on U.S. roadways. The Smart Road has various sensors for researchers to capture the data from the testing. Bryson described the Smart Road as a “sensor vault.”
“In the first several years, we were evaluating different types of highway construction, both common practice and also some experimental approaches to that roadway design,” Bryson said. “We outfitted the roadbed with sensors throughout each of these different sections and evaluated them for everything from vehicle loading for wear and tear, commercial vehicle wear and tear, even wide base tires when they were first introduced.”
The Smart Road is used as a closed facility for most research, but with the live roadway connector, researchers are able to bring an aspect from the public road to the controlled environment. The live roadway connector increases the overall length of the Smart Road to 2.5 miles.
According to Bryson, the live roadway connector is equipped with different safety guards and protocols to ensure the safety of the participants. The live roadway connector links the Smart Road to a public road. Researchers at VTTI can facilitate part of the study on public roadways and the other part on the Smart Road. The live connector allows researchers to conduct operations that would not be appropriate in the public domain. Researchers are able to study participants and vehicles during long periods of time on different road conditions with the help of the live roadway connector.
The surface street expansion, which was opened in November 2017, adds 3.5 additional individual lane miles to the Smart Road. Due to the fact that the surface street expansion is clustered and convoluted, its length was not included in the overall length of the Smart Road. The surface street expansion is intended for low speed operations, and it allows researchers to simulate suburban environments.
The Smart Road will receive two more expansions in 2018: rural roadway expansion and the automation hub.
The rural roadway expansion will add 3.5 miles of roadbed to the Smart Road. The expansion will be located in the valley below the Smart Road bridge. It will add unpaved, hilly and winding roads to the Smart Road. The rural roadway expansion is intended for testing that requires more challenging driving conditions. According to Bryson, the rural roadway expansion will be the first of its kind to facilitate advanced-vehicle testing in a controlled rural environment.
The automation hub is designed to facilitate short turnaround projects that focus on advanced-vehicle testing. The new expansion project is looking to promote collaboration between researchers from VDOT, VTTI, Virginia Tech and industry leaders. The project will also house an intern program for students at Virginia Tech.
According to Bryson, VTTI is looking to increase its publicity in the community.
“VTTI has, for a long time, within certain circles, had a very prominent name. We are very well known within the roadway research sector,” Bryson said. “Unfortunately, that doesn't translate to the public. We do have a little bit of a hurdle in trying to get the message out there that VTTI is really helping all of these vehicle safety technology advances. People really don't understand on a large scale what happens here at VTTI.”
VTTI is hosting its annual open house on April 19. More information can be found on the VTTI website.