Automakers — having already created smart cars that can self-park, apply the brakes to prevent a crash or detect when the driver is dozing off — are now developing vehicles that drive themselves.
Yet roads, although greatly improved since the first dirt streets more than 100 years ago, haven't kept pace.
Against the backdrop of almost 1,000 highway deaths in Illinois in 2013 and some of the worst interstate traffic congestion in the country, the state has launched a $45 million experiment to see whether a blend of technologies can make smarter highways where drivers are safer and less prone to traffic jams.
Traffic engineers are focusing initially on the Edens Expressway and the northern stretch of U.S. Highway 41 and will begin incorporating a mix of existing and new technology during the next two years, an undertaking that could spread to the entire Chicago-area expressway system.
"We are trying to fix a lot of problems with very cost-efficient solutions that can be introduced relatively soon," IDOT Secretary Ann Schneider said.
Those technologies include travel-time estimates using motorists' Bluetooth devices, bus-on-shoulder service during rush hour, and traffic cameras along every interchange.
A major part of the project will be a series of radar devices designed to detect wrong-way drivers and warn other motorists about them. The problem causes more than 300 fatalities a year nationwide, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.
The system, similar to one already being tested in Peoria, will alert the wrong-way driver by triggering flashing red lights, telling the driver not to enter the highway, according to the Illinois Department of Transportation. It will also broadcast warnings on electronic signs to warn oncoming drivers to stay in the far-right lane to help prevent collisions, IDOT officials said.
Wrong-way drivers, the vast majority of whom are intoxicated or older drivers, tend to steer to the far right, which in the wrong direction of travel is the left lane for right-way drivers, officials said.
In addition to alerting drivers, the system could feed information to IDOT and the Illinois State Police, said Steve Travia, IDOT's bureau chief of Chicago-area traffic operations.
The various projects are in the preliminary engineering stage and construction will be done in phases, likely starting in two years, Travia said. Schneider said she is hoping to accelerate the schedule. Projects would be extended over time to other expressways in the area.
IDOT is working with Pace suburban bus to introduce bus-on-shoulder rush-hour service on the Edens. A future pilot project is being eyed between Lake Cook Road and Dempster Street, officials said. Pace operates a popular bus-on-shoulder service during rush periods on the Stevenson Expressway (I-55).
"We hope to build on the success of the I-55 project. (But) we have not yet reached the point where a timetable, service designs, ridership estimates or managing entrance and exit ramps have been established," said Pace spokesman Patrick Wilmot.
IDOT is looking at right-of-way on bridges along the Edens to see whether any changes are needed before rolling out bus-on-shoulder service at or near highway-travel speeds, Travia said.
Once such route is Pace No. 626 Skokie Valley Limited, which operates weekdays between the CTA Dempster/Skokie Swift Yellow Line station and Lincolnshire via the Edens and Lake Cook Road.
"It operates in mixed traffic and could definitely benefit from the travel time savings afforded by shoulder operations,'' Wilmot said.
State traffic officials are also looking to improve traffic flow along U.S. 41, which unlike most of the Chicago-area expressway system doesn't give drivers travel time information. As part of the project, Bluetooth receivers would be installed along a roughly 25-mile stretch of highway dotted with intersections and traffic signals, from Lake Cook Road north to the Wisconsin state line, according to IDOT.
The receivers, which will be a half-mile to 1 mile apart, will pick up data from Bluetooth-enabled mobile phones and vehicles equipped with the wireless technology. Then the time it takes for each vehicle to travel between various points along U.S. 41 will be compared to determine average travel times, which will be made available online and to radio traffic reporters, IDOT said.
"The computer program can eliminate vehicles that stop for coffee, or speed, in order to present an average travel time,'' Travia said.
The identity of the individual drivers will be protected, just as the Illinois Tollway uses I-PASS transponder data to estimate travel times on its toll roads, officials said. The project will be less expensive than tearing up lanes and installing sensor loops under the pavement to gauge travel times by measuring how fast vehicles are traveling over the loops, officials said.