Utah leads the way to connected transportation

The transportation industry in the state of Utah has benefited since the late 1990s from a combination of consistently innovative leadership at the state DOT, generous funding and a growing population, leading to pioneering digital developments. How can other states make transportation more digital? We asked Blaine Leonard, Transportation Technology Engineer at Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) to share his vision and some advice as they hosted an excellent webinar series on connected vehicles and infrastructure.

Published September 25, 2023

Utah has decades of experience in building Intelligent Transport Systems. What advice do you have for those with less developed digital assets?

Agencies have limited funds and the public expects us to use those funds to repair broken roads and fix potholes, fix guardrails, and I fully understand that. We hope to demonstrate that there’s value in V2X. From a safety standpoint we need the automakers to deploy V2X in their cars, but we’re trying to show that the mobility benefits are great.

Deploying V2X requires good traffic signal systems. You can’t hang a V2X roadside unit on a signalized intersection and broadcast signal phase and timing messages unless the signal controller is capable of providing you with this information.

“As a first step, it’s worth finding some funding to upgrade the traffic signal system. That will improve the traffic flow anyway, and the public will notice that.”

While you are doing that, spend a little money on backhaul connections, so you can communicate with these intersections to make them efficient. If you do that first, you are setting the stage and getting yourself ready to deploy V2X. That’s what I would tell my colleagues in other states and cities: pick a small area, a couple of corridors in a big city where you have challenges moving traffic and improve those corridors. Retime traffic signals to make them better and traffic will flow better. That would generate some interest and potentially get you a little more funding. You can do that without lots of money on a small scale.

How did UDOT get involved in digital development?

We have a very broad deployment of fiber optics. We started deploying fiber in about 1998, and pretty quickly had an expectation that any major construction project needed to include fiber, even if there was nothing to connect it to yet. As a result of that we have fiber communications all over the state, including very rural areas. It allows us to deploy cameras in places where we need them and use variable message signs to provide information. We also have weather stations in a variety of places, so our meteorologists can watch and predict weather. That gives us better and more reliable information, so travelers can plan better, and our maintenance crews know when they need to be ready to plow snow or deal with ice on the highway. It all makes a difference in road safety.

How did the “digital first” mindset come about so early?

We’ve been very lucky in our state department of transportation to have very consistent and very innovative leadership. While many state DOTs get a new leader every four years when a new governor arrives, our executive directors often have tenures of a decade or more. They’ve established a culture of forward thinking, finding better ways of doing things, which allows us as an organization to think outside the box. So it’s a top-down leadership culture that’s built on innovation and forward thinking. Many agencies do not have this benefit. Secondly, our state legislature recognized in the late 90s that good business growth requires good transportation. They decided that we need additional funds to make sure that our transportation system is well maintained and growing along with our population. The third benefit is that the population of our state is also very young and growing.

You have a bus lane project in Ogden where you use dedicated lanes and V2X-based Transit Signal Priority as well. Why do you use both of these?

The Utah Transit Authority operates the bus system, and they recognized that better bus service will attract ridership and keep more cars off the road. They are always looking for ways to improve their bus service. They got some experience from another Transit Signal Priority (TSP) project we did together four years ago, and decided to include this in their new Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line in Ogden.

The project starts at the Front Runner commuter train station, moves up through the city, passing by a major hospital and to Weber State University, the 4th largest university in Utah. Parts of the BRT line have dedicated lanes, but much of the corridor does not. We use V2X TSP to improve bus performance through these intersections. To accomplish this, the bus must communicate with the signal and coordinate the phase with the movement of the bus.


“Our V2X-based TSP still helps the bus even when it’s on the dedicated lane to get a green light in time as opposed to just randomly hitting the green and the red based on the normal timing cycle.”

I guess there’s a lot of similar corridors to cover with V2X. What’s on your technology wish list that would help your efforts?

The number one item that comes to my mind is for the automakers to deploy V2X on their cars. Actually, that’s my number one, number two, and number three wish. The mobility benefits of V2X are great, but we won’t see substantial safety benefits from V2X until automakers put V2X in their cars. Part of our job is to work with automakers as much as we can to show them that this is possible, collaborate on standards and performance, and to encourage them to move forward.

We also have a growing problem with pedestrian and bicycle crashes and deaths, and we are working hard on this. From the technology standpoint I think we need better detection of vulnerable road users (VRUs) and a streamlined way to communicate that. Radars don’t pick up pedestrians, camera technology can, but it’s not as granular and definitive as we’d like it to be. We’re experimenting with lidar capabilities at three intersections to identify VRUs and use that to alert drivers somehow, with V2X messages, flashing lights, or whatever it takes to save lives.

How well prepared is Utah to handle the upcoming flood of V2X-enabled vehicles?

We have some funding in our plan today, and my goal is to have roadside units at every signalized intersection throughout the state. With current funding we can reach 60-70 percent in three years.  Our plan is to keep moving this forward. We have been fairly successful with federal grants in Utah to be able to do this, and we have consistent state funding to expand our deployments. If automakers start deploying in model year 2026, then we’ll have more than half of our signals equipped with V2X by then. As the penetration of equipped vehicles increases in the marketplace, we’ll try to keep up with them.

States like Georgia and Florida have broad deployments of V2X with similar plans to expand. What we need to do is convince other states and cities to deploy and expand like some of these leading agencies. It took us eight years to get here. If a city or state hasn’t started yet, it will take them less time to get to where we are, because they can learn from what we are doing. But they need to start now to be ready. We want to be ready.

(Don’t forget to check out the webinar series of UDOT.)