Communicating with motorists

Michael Corbett
Sales Manager
Quixote Transportation Technologies, Inc.
Durham, North Carolina

Have you ever driven into a congested area, only to be frustrated by not understanding the delay or knowing the alternate routes? This is becoming an all-too-familiar occurrence as our cities continue to grow and our roads become even more crowded. Not to mention road construction projects, which seem to be on almost every major route or interstate. These delays significantly impact the quality and productivity of our daily lives as our commute times continue to grow.

We have all heard the saying, "Make roads smarter, not wider." This is a great philosophy, but one that can be problematic to implement. The critical piece to the puzzle is: How do you communicate to motorists in a timely, efficient, and inexpensive manner? As technology marches forward, no doubt our cars and their computers will continue to evolve with incredible capabilities. But that is the future and we live in the "now."

Since we live in the "now," what can transportation officials do to communicate to motorists efficiently, less costly and with minimal interference to drivers? As of today there are only two forms of communication that are free to motorists:

  • 100% of drivers have access to visual information in the form of static road signs or dynamic changeable message signs
  • 95% of vehicles in the U.S. have an AM/FM radio, according to CEA Market Research

  A Highway Advisory Radio sign

Comparing the two technologies listed above, the key advantage to using the AM/FM radio is its ability to reach the motorists with far more information than any other widely available technology. Another advantage to using the AM/FM radios is that unlike signs, if a motorist misses the message, the radio will continue to play relevant announcements.

Popular technologies such as cell phones, navigations systems and satellite radio exist, but there are tradeoffs when looking at the current state of their technology. For example, cell phones are the most entrenched alternative communication available in the vehicle. According to the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association, in 2006, 69% of the U.S. population had a cell phone with a certain percentage of those assigned being non-driving youths and business applications. Thus, motorists with access to a cell phone are less than 69%. Therefore, a gap exists in the availability of this information to a significant portion of the public. Also, because cell phones and cell usage plans cost the motorist money, there is an economic barrier that will prevent cell phones from being available in all vehicles. The most significant issue currently being debated with cell phones is that several studies have shown people who use a cell phone while driving have comparable driving skills to drunk drivers.

So the question remains, can we leverage existing technology to communicate information into the vehicle safely and without the concern of commercial interests, such as advertising dollars? The answer has been around since 1977. In that year, the FCC passed a regulation called 90.242. This ruling allows government entities, parks and authorities to hold a license for a low-power AM radio station. These systems are generally referred to as Highway Advisory Radios (HARs), Travelers Information Stations (TIS), or Emergency Warning Systems. The terms are synonymous and each is a 10-watt AM station. This allows DOTs, state parks, airports, cities, counties and universities the ability to give relevant information about traffic, construction, points of interest, weather and safety instructions. One of the most common uses of a HAR system is as a means of advance planning to notify motorists of possible disruptions to highway transportation, thereby avoiding the situation of uninformed motorists traveling into the problem zone. Other examples of HAR system usage to improve security and safety are: the system provides broadcast of emergency evacuations, available routes/modes of transportation, and emergency information government agencies desire to communicate to traveling motorists.

This photo shows part of an Advance Warnsystem that now uses data from QTT to determine the pavement temperature and condition.

Today, state-of-the-art TIS/HAR systems, provided by companies such as QTT-Highway Information Systems, Inc. (HIS), include features like Text-to-Speech (the ability to take a text file and broadcast the contents using a computer generated voice), GPS synchronization (coordination of multiple HARs through GPS technology) and central software control to simplify operation of the system.

GPS synchronization has increased the range of a HAR array and improved audio quality throughout the coverage area. Most people think of a low-power AM radio station as that scratchy audio on the AM dial, but a modern system consisting of multiple transmitters has much improved sound. The audio level should be consistent throughout the area of coverage, and with GPS synchronization, coverage can now be extended to limits never possible in the past. The GPS-synchronized HAR system is a unique system that is capable of broadcasting messages throughout a large area, such as an extended roadway, an entire city or county, rather than a smaller, localized area such as a park or one section of a city. The synchronized system uses an AM transmitter and digital recorder/player with advanced GPS technology to communicate messages via AM radio frequency.

All levels of government can use such a device to communicate a tremendous amount of information to the motorists efficiently and at no cost to the motorists. A Florida city adopted a modern system and comments:

"The system is definitely a value for the City of Miramar and its residents," reports Tom Good, Administration Officer for the City of Miramar. "Miramar is one of the top three fastest-growing cities in Florida and has quickly gone from a small, sleepy town to a mature city. The GPS synchronized system is a solid form of communication for our community."

Today, with the need for congestion mitigation and public awareness of security and safety at a heightened level for transportation services, Highway Advisory Radio systems can perform an important role in providing a critical communication path. HAR systems allow the motorist to take alternate routes and avoid congestion for safe travel along the U.S. highway system. The by-product of having this technology in place is that there is now an emergency communication channel during times of transportation crisis. With proven technology, years of operation and hundreds of installations, HAR systems can reach the vast majority of traveling motorists through their automobile radio with current, up-to-date information. By using equipment most motorists already have, low-power radio stations can provide an effective and efficient method for communicating to motorists.

Michael Corbett can be reached at (919) 361-2479 or mcorbett@quixotecorp.com.

Another shot of an Advance Warnsystem that uses data from QTT to determine the pavement conditions, in this case a wet road surface.