Colorado is taking a big leap towards a driverless world with a futuristic update to the state’s roads. Soon, Colorado’s main arteries will be thinking for themselves, sharing information and speaking with the cars driving on them.

It should make life on the highly congested, dangerous and often variable roads of the Rocky Mountains not only safer, but also less exasperating to deal with. Crashes will be reduced, fatalities will diminish, and, if all goes to plan, even the insidious Colorado traffic will get sapped.

But, even more interestingly, this project represents the beginning of the end for hands-on human driving in the Centennial State. It is setting the stage for an oncoming era of self-driving vehicles.  

“The future is connected,” says Amy Ford, the Colorado Department of Transportation’s (CDOT) chief of advanced mobility. “And eventually it will be autonomous.”

In December, the Feds awarded CDOT a $20 million BUILD grant to pursue and expand their “Internet of Roads” project. The aim? Connect cars with roads with drivers and CDOT to squeeze the most efficiency possible out of the transportation network.

It’s an attractive idea. One that could change life on Colorado’s roadways for the better. But how? What are the real-world logistics of getting roads to talk to cars?

According to Ford, it requires three things: cars that can communicate with each other, a digital infrastructure for roads to collect and share information with cars, and a central brain that can process everything and keep the system organized.  

That first requirement is already in production. Over the next several years manufacturers like Toyota, Volkswagen, Ford and GM are going to start rolling out cars with V2X (or “Vehicle to Everything”) communication. Cars built with this system will be able to share and receive all kinds of information via either cellular or WiFi signals — a feature that CDOT plans on taking full advantage of.

As for the digital infrastructure, that is what CDOT is in the process of building now. By installing stationary “roadside listening units” along roadways CDOT will be able to collect information from these V2X cars as they pass by. That information will then be compiled and broadcast to other cars and drivers as a live, self-updating stream.

And the brain? The central nervous system for this Internet of Roads? That is already under construction, too. In partnership with Panasonic, CDOT is building the nation’s first commercial scale command center in Denver to analyze information from the V2X network.

The kind of information these vehicles will be sharing ranges from weather reports, to accident alerts and traffic stops. If a car’s airbags detonate because it crashed, that car will notify all the cars behind it that there’s been an accident and notify CDOT so they can dispatch emergency vehicles. If cars are slipping on a certain stretch of road, they’ll signal to vehicles behind them that there’s ice so people can slow down, and CDOT can get plows on the situation. If there’s construction or a sudden standstill coming, your car will know long before you do and it will let you know.

Some other examples of what this system will be able to do:

  • Alert drivers if a pedestrian is crossing several hundred yards ahead

  • Alert Drivers if a car is parked on the route, or if there are other obstacles/roadblocks impending

  • Warn of decelerating vehicles or vehicles approaching from a blind spot

  • Offer countdown timers for stoplight changes (i.e. green to yellow/red to green)

  • Broadcast distress signals to other cars and emergency services

Clearly, there are a lot of good reasons to build this system. But the big factor, the reason Ford says CDOT wanted to pursue this in the first place, is to reduce accidents and save lives.

“This could reduce car crashes by up to 80 percent in the long run,” says Ford, a little incredulously. And in a state that loses around 600 people a year to traffic fatalities, that’s a rosy statistic. According to research by AECOM, in the first 20 years this system could result in 85,564 fewer car accidents, 22,294 fewer injuries and 303 fewer fatalities on Colorado roads — halving the number of lives lost annually.

That has an extremely positive trickle-down effect, as well: reduced traffic. A whopping 25 percent of Colorado’s congestion problems are caused by car crashes, says Ford. In reducing those by 20, 30, 50 and eventually 80 percent, the effect on traffic will be considerable.

And not just because of fewer crashes, either. With so much information being exchanged between cars and roadways and drivers, driving efficiency will increase dramatically. According to Ford, this system could double or even quadruple a roadway’s capacity, which is exactly what Colorado needs. The state is suffering from increasingly heinous traffic issues, in Denver, along the Font Range and throughout the I-70 mountain corridor. If CDOT can effectively double (or quadruple) the rate of flow in those areas without building more roads it would be a bewildering victory.

Originally, CDOT had only planned to install this system on a 70-mile stretch of I-70 between Grand Junction and the Utah border. But with this recent Federal BUILD grant, CDOT expanded that plan to encompass 500 miles of Colorado roadways — spanning from Sterling to Utah, from Pueblo to Wyoming and throughout the I-70 mountain corridor and throughout Denver’s I-70 quarter.

“In fact, every major project that we've got going right now is installing this system,” notes Ford.

So as highways, interstates and city streets get replaced and rebuilt over the years, Colorado’s network of intelligent roads will grow. Until, eventually, it encompasses the entire state.

While there are undoubtedly a lot of immediate, short-term benefits to this Internet of Roads, CDOT is also thinking in the long-term. As autonomous vehicles barrel down upon our society, this network will serve as their matrix. CDOT is effectively setting the stage for this driverless revolution; building the framework for the future of transportation.

A future driven by machine minds instead of human hands.

“Colorado already has laws on the books that allow us to have autonomous vehicles on our roadways,” explains Ford. “And creating a data ecosystem that feeds in this broad situational awareness of all these connected vehicles, that is absolutely part of the future … and sort of built towards that automated future as well.”

This isn’t the first time Colorado has toyed with the idea of self-driving vehicle technology. In 2016 a self-driving beer delivery truck drove from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs, a journey that made it into the Guinness Book of World Records. It was the longest successful road trip for an autonomous vehicle in history, and with it came the realization that human-operated transportation is withering away at the wheel. We will not be in the driver’s seat for long, now.

So, enjoy your freedom to drive fast and recklessly while it’s still yours.  

Still, there’s no need to go ripping your steering wheel out just yet. Ford predicts that Colorado’s roads won’t even be 100 percent occupied by V2X cars until 2058 — let alone fully autonomous cars. There’s a turnover period still to be had.

But between this Internet of Roads, the oncoming autonomous traffic and the proposed Hyperloop One project that CDOT is designing in partnership with AECOM, the future of transportation in Colorado is looking pretty bright and exciting. Just imagine what this place would be like without congested roads, without constant mountain traffic, accidents and fatalities… 

That's a future everyone can look forward to. Even if it is still a long way off.