Transportation institute uses connected technology to improve motorcycle safety


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Motorcyclists are at a high risk, representing one in every seven fatalities on the road.

Zac Doerzaph, director of the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute’s Center for Advanced Automotive Research, calls the number “staggering.” He and other researchers at the institute’s Motorcycle Research Group work to improve safety for motorcyclists, and the car and truck drivers who share the road, by developing connected technology and communications systems that allows vehicles to “talk” to one another. 

The institute’s addition of motorcycles into the communication circle — among the first in the world — is only a year old. Passenger cars, trucks, and buses have tested the technology for years, Doerzaph said.

These new efforts are part of the Virginia Connected Test Bed, a $14 million public-private partnership led by the institute. Now in the early test stage, the project currently involves 43 connected roadside units near Fairfax, Va., along Interstate 66, and another 12 along the Smart Road test track in Blacksburg, Va. These wireless infrastructure devices installed near the road send and receive information from test vehicles, including motorcycles.

Vehicles are able to send and receive data wirelessly from roadside equipment that can inform transportation officials about crashes, congestion, and other issues. More importantly, drivers can receive information from the roadside that enables numerous applications targeted at improving safety, mobility, and the environment.

Vehicles also share information directly with each other, providing 360-degree awareness about their position, likely trajectory, and speed, which gives drivers warnings about possible crash scenarios. This is where the technology is vital for motorcyclists.

“A large portion of crashes are from drivers not seeing motorcycles, they’re more inconspicuous than larger vehicles,” said Doerzaph, who himself rides motorcycles. “Now the motorcycle can share information about its position with the adjacent vehicles. That way if the driver of one of those vehicles changes into the lane of the motorcycle, it can receive a warning about that position of the motorcycle.”

The technology is years away from reality, especially on motorcycles. For now, the connected motorcycles can let their proximity be known to other motorists, but riders don’t yet have definitive interfaces that will warn them of a potential crash.

“There’s no precedence on collision avoidance systems on motorcycles,” Doerzaph said, adding that researchers must first figure out how to send an audible or visual alert to a rider that doesn’t create its own hazard. What works in a car or bus doesn’t necessarily translate to a motorcycle. Other issues for the connected system, such as how to create uniform technology that can be shared among providers and can’t be hacked.

What the technology won’t do is take control from the driver. Researchers working on the Virginia Connected Test Bed project seek ways to improve driver road safety. “This is not an automated driving system,” Doerzaph said. “It’s providing decision support to the driver.”

  • For more information on this topic, contact Steven Mackay at 540-231-4787.

Vehicles 'talk' to each other at test bed

    Officials cut the ribbon at the Virginia Connected Test Bed

The Virginia Connected Test Bed is a public-private partnership spearheaded by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. There, connected wireless technology enables outfitted cars, trucks, and motorcycles to “talk” to each other through wireless sensors installed along the Interstate 66 corridor in Merrifield, Va.

The project officially launched in June 2013 with an ribbon-cutting event attended by Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell. 

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