“Mobile Unit for Sensing Traffic” is a next generation Internet of Things device

The rise in connected and autonomous vehicles and other transportation innovations have transformed municipalities into smart cities and improved the communication of roadway conditions to drivers. These cutting-edge technologies are part of a growing movement toward intelligent transportation systems (ITS), a transportation management approach that integrates advanced communications between vehicles and infrastructure. This system-sensing information is extremely valuable to transportation managers, who strive to safely and efficiently maintain infrastructure, and to vehicle manufacturers interested in emerging technologies that help to support the internet-connected vehicles and mobility experiences of the future.

From traditional communications systems, to wireless networks, to roadside sensing devices, current transportation management systems draw from a broad range of data sources, and each of these data streams shows one part of the picture. The need for clear, consistent vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2X) data is growing, yet the lack of interoperability between these data-collection platforms makes it difficult to manage information and integrate crucial traffic data.

Enter the Mobile Unit for Sensing Traffic (MUST)

MUST is an Internet of Things (IoT) roadside device that is more than just a simple alternative to existing sensors. In fact, MUST integrates multiple functions into one device: road surface, weather, and traffic sensing; data fusion and computation; and communication functions. It provides a powerful yet cost-effective solution to the traffic data challenges and benefits all stakeholders in the road transportation ecosystem. This new and innovative device was developed by the University of Washington Smart Transportation Applications and Research Laboratory (STAR Lab), directed by Dr. Yinhai Wang, professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering and adjunct professor of Electrical & Computer Engineering. The first version of the MUST sensor was developed in 2018, and since then the STAR Lab team has been actively enhancing the MUST sensors through research projects.

Support for this project came from Challenge Seattle, a private sector initiative led by CEOs from 21 of the region’s largest employers. It was formed, in part, to develop world-leading infrastructure that drives future growth and improves quality of life in the Seattle region. Challenge Seattle funded this innovation through a partnership with UW CoMotion’s Mobility Innovation Center, which tackles specific transportation challenges using applied research and experimentation. They also funded the mobility innovation track of the CoMotion Innovation Gap Fund (Gap Fund) last spring to support this project. This contribution enabled the research team to expedite the process of moving their research product to an innovative transportation technology in the field. The funds not only support the development of UW research projects that have a positive societal impact, a portion of any licensing revenue is also reinvested in the Gap Fund, creating a path for continued support of other researchers and their innovations.

The current traffic incident alerting options do not provide consistent, timely, on-demand information or actionable recommendations for routing drivers away from the source of congestion. The focus of this project was to find a way to better notify the general public of extraordinary incidents (three or four times per year) that would greatly impact their travel in the Puget Sound area. There was a secondary focus on how this notification system could be integrated with daily utility through improved mobile ticketing features that could help to move displaced drivers onto transit.

Researchers’ passion leads to proprietary innovation in transportation

Both researchers have had life-long passions for developing innovations in transportation. Over the past 17 years, Wang and his team have conducted many challenging research projects in the STAR Lab that span the broad field of transportation engineering. From traffic sensing to system control to big data analytics technologies, they have produced several innovative technologies and methods. The MUST sensor technology is one example of these, and many more innovations are on the way.

Transportation is essential to our everyday life, but transportation technology advancement is significantly behind many other fields. For example, traffic signals used today are not too much different from the original ones invented in the 1920s. I believe there are many opportunities for improvement in traffic engineering technologies.

– Dr. Yinhai Wang, Founder, STAR Lab

MUST employs a unique proprietary video capture and processing method based on edge Artificial Intelligence (AI) and which minimizes communication bandwidth requirements. It generates video using its own camera and then implements machine learning (ML) methodologies on its computing unit to process, fuse, and analyze the video data. Decision-making logic will be based on the specific use case and communications with stakeholders. For example, in a parking lot occupancy monitoring application, MUST would capture the vehicle parking events from the video in real-time based on an edge AI algorithm and relay the data for tracking and decision making.
Life-saving “vehicle-to-everything” technology

MUST can also serve as a roadside unit (RSU) for connected vehicle applications with the built-in vehicle-to-everything or “V2X” function. It can send warning messages to roadway users, including vehicles and pedestrians, when dangerous situations are detected or received from trusted sources. A National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) study of connected vehicle technologies found that “they have the potential to reduce up to 80 percent of crashes where drivers are not impaired, which would save a significant number of lives and prevent millions of crash-related injuries every year” (source: US Department of Transportation). Given that traffic accidents account for $871 billion worth of economic and societal impacts annually on US citizens, the safety benefit from technologies like MUST could be enormous.

“With support and funding from the Innovation Gap Fund, we have investigated the industry standards for sensing products and communicated with casting foundries and manufacturers for MUST shell production,” said Dr. Wei Sun, research associate at STAR Lab. “We then enhanced our design of the MUST sensor to meet industry standards, making it more robust and easy to scale up and configure.” Because a certain portion of the Innovation Gap Fund is earmarked for new business development, funding also permitted the team to collaborate with transportation solutions, product dealers, and consulting companies to develop a business strategy and marketing plan.

This technology is potentially useful for any agency, company, or individual who owns roadway or parking infrastructure in data collection or infrastructure management, and it provides information service to facility users. In addition, MUST sensor’s sensing and communication capabilities have many potential application scenarios in supply chain management systems. For example, with enough MUST sensors deployed, the data collected can be used to better manage the movement of people and goods. These network-level analysis functions, based on data collected from multiple MUST sensors, are desirable services for customers. Another scenario MUST sensors can be used for is curbside space management, which is important for urban freight deliveries and pickups. Putting MUST to the test with real-world solutions

“So far, our ‘customers’ (i.e. partners) are very interested in this new technology and some, like Norwegian Public Roads Administration and the City of Bellevue, are testing the functions for potential use,“ said Dr. Sun. “Because of MUST sensor’s integration of multiple sensing functions and its computing and communication capabilities, our customers see MUST as an IoT device that can provide customized transportation solutions. This is hard to find in existing commercial sensing products.” The Norwegian Public Roads Administration, for example, plans to install nine MUST sensors along its E8 corridor to monitor roadway traffic and surface conditions (snow, ice, rain, etc.) and ensure travel time reliability of salmon-carrying trucks. With these sensors, any capacity-reducing event can be detected promptly and a message will be sent to traffic operators to alert an incident response crew who can address the event. This solution is expected to increase travel time reliability of the E8 corridor and thus benefit the road users, particularly the fish companies.

Funding has also enabled the launch of pilot programs for testing the implementation of MUST with transportation agencies. One example is the 106th Avenue Curbside Management Pilot with the City of Bellevue*. “As the curb becomes more dynamic, it will be important for cities to emphasize their transportation planning and policy goals to help guide overall decision-making,” said Chris Iverson, project manager for the Curbside Management Pilot. The current application focuses on evaluating the accuracy of MUST sensor’s curbside activity detection. “The curb should eventually reflect what cities want to become, whether that’s a staging ground for micromobility or other sustainable transportation choices, an activity hub for food trucks or ‘parklets,’ or a dynamic zone to optimize traffic for rideshare and freight activities,” said Chris Iverson. Such future curbside parking management systems will need IoT roadside devices such as MUST, which has both comprehensive traffic sensing and V2X capabilities.

A regional leader in mobility innovation

With this critical investment from Challenge Seattle and support from CoMotion through the Mobility Innovation Center and the Innovation Gap Fund, the MUST team is in a position to commercialize their innovation and plans to take a license to form a startup. They expect revenue to cover the growth of the company in the beginning, but they are also considering investment from venture capital to accelerate this growth. The MUST team’s commitment to innovation in mobility not only improves Washington State’s transportation systems and positively impacts economic development, safety and quality of life, it also positions our region as a leader in mobility innovation. These advances will help prepare us for the future and set the stage for other regional partners to engage in investments to continue this trend.