ASEE PRISM - October 2000
Teaching Toolbox
On Campus
Virginia Tech's Very Smart Road

By Susan C. Hegger

RIGHT NOW, it's a very expensive, 1.7 mile, two-lane road in rural southwest Virginia that goes absolutely nowhere. But if Virginia Tech's Smart Road lives up to expectations, it will take car-loving Americans into the future by making driving safer and more efficient.

photo courtesy of Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles
On the Smart Road, reasearchers can evaluate different technologies under a variety of weather conditions.

The Smart Road is a joint project of the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute and the Virginia Department of Transportation. After three years of construction, the first phase of this high-tech roadway, which cost more than $30 million, including land acquisition and right of way costs, opened officially in March. A second phase, which will extend the road to a length of two miles and include a bridge, is near completion.

Ultimately, the Smart Road will be part of a 5.7 mile highway, for now, though, it is an impressive outdoor laboratory for experiments in highway safety and efficiency. Most of the research will be done with state or federal Department of Transportation dollars. But private companies, such as Ford, Dalco, and General Motors, can pay the Institute to conduct experiments for them. By the end of the year, the Transportation Institute will have attracted roughly $3 million in research.

While the Smart Road looks like any other road, everything about it is, needless to say, state-of-the-art. Twelve Superpave experimental asphalts, testing different mixtures and different subgrade depths, are being used. More than 400 sensors, linked by fiber-optic cables, have been buried underground. These sensors, some of which look like "a pancake on a stick," according to project manager Ashwin Amanna, measure just about anything you can think of: concrete stress, asphalt strain, moisture penetration, frost depth, vehicle speed and weight, not to mention actual traffic. Light towers along one section of the road make it possible to simulate dawn and dusk as well as other visibility conditions. At the road's end is the control tower where the pavement sensors, cameras and surveillance grids are controlled and monitored.

But the piece de resistance has to be the remarkable weather-making towers along a half-mile stretch of the road. With all the powers of an angry Zeus, researchers can call up a torrential downpour, a light mist, freezing rain or even a snow storm that can leave four inches of snow an hour. This ability to generate specific weather conditions has to be a godsend for engineers wanting to build both better highways and better cars.

Currently, the Institute is engaged in research projects with Virginia's Department of Transportation, the U.S. Department of Transportation and Ford Motor Co. Ongoing studies include: an assessment of the appearance of advanced ultraviolet vehicle headlamps, as well as pedestrian and object visibility under a number of lighting techniques, and evaluating the performance of different pavement designs with stress, moisture, and compaction tests. Eventually, such research could lead to ways to improve highway lighting or the visibility of pavement marking at night or in bad weather. Or it might help to prevent car accidents in icy weather.

Amanna warns that the research projects may not yield immediate benefits to drivers. "The construction industry and state transportation departments are slow to change," he says. "Product developers are on a faster timeline. They test something out here, and consumers should see the results quickly."

Amanna is confident that down the road, so to speak, the Smart Road will be well worth the investment. With all the miles of highway in this country, "say we come up with ways to save even $1 a linear foot in pouring pavement or if we save one minute of lost time, multiply that by the number of people stuck in a highway jam, and you've made a real difference." he says.

Then there's the really big payoff. "There are 41,00 traffic fatalities every year. We take that for granted as the price we pay for mobility. That's the equivalent of one 747 crashing every day," said Amanna. "What we're doing out there on the Smart Road costs a lot of money, and right now we have a road that goes nowhere. But step back a minute. If something we're doing saves one life, that's the really important achievement."

 Susan C. Hegger is a freelance writer living in St. Louis.

On Campus
Look Ma, No Wires

By Susan C. Hegger


Students and professors alike can go online anywhere on Carnegie Mellon's state-of-the-art wireless campus.

FIFTHTEEN YEARS AGO, Carnegie Mellon made waves when it became one of the first "wired" universities. Today, the university continues to be on the cutting edge: It is among the first-- if not the first--university to have gone "wireless." The system is called "Wireless Andrew," a tip of the hat to the university's namesakes: Andrew Carnegie and Andrew Mellon.

The system has been six years in the making and represents a major initiative for the campus. The original research and experimentation for a wireless system began in 1994, but the program really began to pick up steam in 1998 when network standards were introduced. The actual deployment took only a year. "That's quick," says Chuck Bartel, CMU's project director for Wireless Andrew. Now it's operational virtually campuswide, with more than 30 buildings adapted for wireless use.

All it takes to "plug into" a wireless system is a laptop and a $150 to $175 networking card, analogous to a modem card. Bartel says that most of the current generation of laptops can be used wireless. Within the wireless system--in this case the entire campus--when a student, faculty member, or staffer turns on a laptop to go online, the networking card inside the computer sends a radio signal to an access point or radio mounted on the wall, which then communicates via the cable to the main network.

Each access point is about 8.5 by 11 inches and roughly the thickness of a telephone book. It has an off-white cover plate and can be camouflaged so that it's not aesthetically intrusive. In fact, the university architect helped with the design and placement, especially in buildings where there were strong historical or aesthetic concerns.

The primary advantage of wireless computing is, of course, its freedom. You can use your laptop anywhere you want, whenever you want: in the library, outside, in the cafeteria. It's a real boon if you are a mobile computer user--"like I am"--says Bartel.

"Wireless will do between 85 and 100 percent of what the average computer user wants to do," Bartel continues, "only it's a little bit slower." (It's still faster, though, than the modem connection an average person might have at home.) Bartel, who uses his laptop as a desktop computer, favors the wireless system for almost all his needs: updating his calendar, browsing the Internet, and e-mailing.

There's one task, however, that he leaves to the traditional wired system: all of his back-up work. For one thing, it goes a lot faster because Wired Andrew is considerably quicker than his wireless brother. For another, Bartel believes that it's "antisocial" to use the wireless system for backing up material, because when a lot of people are tapping into an access point, the system can and does bog down.

A wireless system doesn't come cheap by any means--it's a real investment in the future. Carnegie Mellon was fortunate to get a grant of roughly half a million dollars from Lucent to pay for the equipment, which cost another $300,000 to install.

When Wireless Andrew was in its infancy, there was some grumbling on campus. Some students thought it was an extravagance, and that the money could be better spent on a computing infrastructure that would benefit more than the 1,000 or so people with laptops.

Bartel prefers to take the long view. "We could have said the same thing 15 years ago [about Wired Andrew] when PCs were in the $10,000 range," he said. "We view wireless as a visionary approach"--just like his older brother, Wired Andrew, proved to be. And, of course, Wireless Andrew allowed Carnegie Mellon to leverage grants from partners to complete the project, added Bartel.

Wireless Andrew is also producing some intriguing spin-offs. Right now, Carnegie Mellon is experimenting with Hand-held Andrew: putting wireless cards in Palm Pilots and Pocket PCs.

One of the strongest vindications of Wireless Andrew came when Yahoo Internet Life magazine voted Carnegie Mellon the No. 1 most wired school in the nation. "The wireless network is what pushed us over the top," Bartel said, with all the happiness of a proud father.

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