Transurban takes express route to smart roads and driverless vehicles

Transurban takes express route to smart roads and driverless vehicles

Company's sensor rich roads keep congestion down and enable an autonomous future

The price you pay for not using the tolled express lane on Washington DC’s Interstate 95 highway is frustratingly apparent.

"In the express lane you will literally drive past the general purpose lanes where everybody's backed up in traffic and you get to see the value proposition,” explains Robert Dean, head of technology for Transurban – the I95 express lane’s owner and operator in North America.

Dean describes paying the toll for the I95 express lane – which is due to be extended following a deal signed last week – as the equivalent of a “guaranteed time to delivery” for your journey.

"If you take general purpose lanes you might be able to get there on time,” he told CIO Australia at the AWS Re:Invent conference in Las Vegas last month. “But a lot of times you're not going to get there. We take the express lanes because we – for all intents and purposes – guarantee a certain speed on those lanes at a minimum.”

Although the advantage of taking the tolled route is less obvious in Australia, where Transurban wholly or partly owns 13 roads, it is hard to dispute. According to data from satnav maker TomTom, drivers in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane save more than 310,000 hours of travel-time each workday on average by taking a Transurban toll route.

Nobody enjoys paying road tolls, so for Transurban’s value proposition to be sustainable, its routes must remain congestion free.

But with the number of cars on Australian road steadily rising (up 2.1 per cent to 18.8 million at last count) and their use during peak hours increasing too (around two in three Australians drive to work, up by half a million since 2011), keeping toll roads flowing freely gets more challenging every day.

Transurban is rolling out IP-enabled technology along its fibre-lined roads to gather data, managing lanes from control rooms that crunch data from driver mobiles, video cameras, weather sensors, government agencies and demographic studies. The company is also preparing for the unknown effects autonomous vehicles will have on the road network, and running a series of trials in Australia. At present 40 per cent of our Transurban’s workforce is in technology with a daily focus on data, network performance and security.

“The better that you can become at predicting as opposed to reacting, allows you to manage that road more effectively,” Dean adds.

Life in the fast lane

Transurban’s network in Australia is vast, the company wholly or partly owning the Cross City Tunnel, Eastern Distributor, Lane Cover Tunnel, and a stretch of the M2 in Sydney, Melbourne’s CityLink and controversial West Gate Tunnel, and Brisbane’s Clem7, Go Between Bridge, Logan Motorway and Airport Link M7 among others.

An artist's impression of the Melbourne West Gate Tunnel entrance
An artist's impression of the Melbourne West Gate Tunnel entrance

Along its routes, the company has laid 700 kilometres of optic fibres which are connected to 100,000 pieces of technology and safety systems.

As well as the antennae that read the e-tags of vehicles passing under the gantries, there are high definition cameras to read numberplates, dynamic speed signs, and intrusion detection to pick up vehicles travelling the wrong way down a lane. In tunnels there are air meters, exhaustion fans, smoke detectors and safety systems.

“We always say we have the most sensor rich roads in the world,” says Dean.

Increasingly, the sensors and devices are being updated so they are IP-enabled, so they can be more easily read and operated from a central control room.

“Before they were just black boxes, not connected to anything” explains Mithran Naiker, general manager, infrastructure and service delivery at Transurban. “All those devices were getting managed by people at the road, now we’re trying to centrally manage it, centrally deploy it, make it highly automated so no one on the roadside has to go and touch anything besides plugging a box in.”

The company is currently exploring edge computing, so that for example a camera on a gantry has the processing power to read a numberplate rather than a human in a control room.

The devices are business critical. Without the e-tag readers and cameras, revenue is at risk, and if sight or safety systems are lost, the road must close.

“If we can't see what's happening on a road and we can't control the safety systems we need to shut it down,” Naiker adds.

That means the devices chosen are robust, with lots of redundancy built into the system.

“You have to almost be bulletproof,” says Dean. “That doesn’t mean something never fails, but that its ok if something fails if something else can pick it up.”

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