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How U.S. grants are connecting vehicles and infrastructure to make Phoenix roads safer

Last year, the U.S. Department of Transportation awarded the Arizona Commerce Authority one of the first SMART grants — that stands for Strengthening Mobility and Revolutionizing Transportation.

The plan here was to use the money on "vehicle to everything" technology — basically a way to connect vehicles and infrastructure in an effort to improve traffic safety. The grant was one of more than 50 across the country stemming from the bipartisan infrastructure law. Some focused on using connected technology, while others had different goals.

The U.S. Department of Transportation's chief science officer was recently in the Valley to check in on that work. Robert Hampshire, Ph.D., visited the Maricopa County Transportation Command Center and met with people working on these projects.

The Show met up with him there to talk about the ultimate potential of the kind of technology these grants aim to encourage.

Full conversation

ROBERT HAMPSHIRE: Yeah, you know, the really the potential I go back to safety is really about saving lives. There's two projects that we're awarding a total of $4 million for safety grants under our smart program. One of them, for example, is mainly focused on people walking and biking and making sure they can do that safely. And so really, that project is to reduce the number of fatal crashes we've seen in Arizona, greater Phoenix area has seen an increase of about 10% in fatal crashes, car crashes this year. And so this project I think really will help kind of, you know, reduce that number. And the other project is more on drivers. And so as, as you're driving, particularly on a crowded, of roads and highways that, that you'll get alerted when there's a problem ahead sooner than you would have otherwise. Also emergency medical services like ambulances that could get through traffic more expeditiously to make sure they're getting to the site of a of a crash faster and saving people's lives.

MARK BRODIE: How does the technology actually work?

HAMPSHIRE: Yeah. So the technologies, there's a range of technologies being used on these projects, but one of them is so called connected vehicle or connected infrastructure technology that allows where drivers vehicles really broadcast where they are. So that other cars or pieces of infrastructure that are in the area know that you're there. And so that's provides situational awareness around your vehicle, around ambulances, around public transit fleets. And so just that awareness helps can then be translated to make sure that cars don't get into crashes and, and help reduce and improve the safety. 

BRODIE: How similar or dissimilar is this kind of technology to what a lot of newer cars have, for example, like if you veer into a different lane, you know, your steering wheel will buzz, or if there's somebody coming up next to you, your car will beep or something like that. 

HAMPSHIRE: Yeah, it's different in the sense that a lot of so cars are getting smarter and smarter with these kind of technologies. But as an aspect of this project is that the infrastructure is getting smarter and smarter. So the roads, the traffic lights know that you're there. And so as cars are getting smarter, then these projects help the infrastructure get smarter. 

BRODIE: How vital is it for this all to work that the vehicles have the technology that they need in addition to the infrastructure having the technology it needs.

HAMPSHIRE: Yeah, you know, the first phase on these projects are really vehicles that transit vehicles, buses or maybe municipal vehicles or other vehicles that are equipped with the technology. And so that's sort of phase one. And so then there's a nationwide movement that as we move past phase one, then private vehicles will start to be equipped with this technology. These projects, these two projects in the greater Phoenix area are really part of a cohort of around 50 or so projects around the nation. About eight of those are about about connected infrastructure. And so we've connected those projects with other ones across the nation. So the project partners here in Arizona, we're putting them in touch with folks in other parts of the country who are working on similar projects. And so that way you can, there's lessons learned, share experiences across the nation. So what's done here in, in, in Phoenix will then help influence what done across the country.

BRODIE: And you mentioned Phoenix, you know, obviously has an increase in traffic fatalities. Is that to you what makes this a good place to try this? Are there other factors that went into the fed's decision to, to test this here?

HAMPSHIRE: Yeah. So the, the two projects here in Phoenix really put together terrific proposals that are solving some challenges for people who live right here in the greater Phoenix area. And so they put together really great proposals and showed the need particularly around safety. So we know that we want to make the roads safer here for people driving, but also people walking and biking, particularly around along on the roads, but also on trails as well. And so safety really did help tilt the scale in the sense of for us wanting to fund these projects. 

BRODIE: What kinds of concerns have you heard from folks who are maybe nervous about traffic lights, knowing that, you know, they as a driver are at the intersection or, you know, sort of, you know, a lot of people are worried about data privacy, things like that. What, what have you heard and, and how can you try to make sure that that people are, are be able to be OK with that?

HAMPSHIRE: We certainly understand that concern but the projects that we're funding here locally, here in greater Phoenix area, the partners are really doing safe and responsible deployments of these technologies. They don't collect any proprietary or personal information about you. They're really helping to help make the transportation system work more effectively. 

BRODIE: When you talk about trying to increase and improve safety, how much can technology like this play into that versus, you know, maybe drivers putting their cellphones down or just, you know, people paying better attention.

HAMPSHIRE: That's a great question. And so the U.S. Department of Transportation, we put forward a national roadway safety strategy, and this is a way that as our nation, we can move towards zero car crash fatalities, and part of that national railway safety strategy to help us get. There includes many factors, one of them being technology. And so there are behavior of drivers are important, the way the roads are structured, the way that ambulatory services work are all things that we can improve. And that's part of the National Roadway Safety strategy, and technology deployments like these two grants are part of that strategy. 

BRODIE: So it's a tool but not a silver bullet.

HAMPSHIRE: That's right. These project technology is a tool towards safety, an important tool, but a tool that's part of a broader toolbox of safety measures.

KJZZ's The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ's programming is the audio record.

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Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.