Tomorrowland: Smarter communities by design

Artist rendering of a smart city, showing a wind turbine and elevated autonomous train

A little over a century ago, a transportation revolution changed the landscape of communities across the United States. When the automobile hit the road, the gap between rural America and its dense, urban centers shrunk. People were able to travel further, faster and an entire new infrastructure sprung up around the car. Gas stations, parking lots and drive-ins dotted a growing highway system, linking communities that were increasingly suburban.

Like any revolutionary technology, the automobile changed more than just the way we travel. It changed the fabric of our society. Now, we stand poised on the brink of another revolution, one that promises to be no less transformative for both our transportation and ourselves. Economic and cultural changes like the rise of the sharing economy, coupled with the imperative of sustainable design, require rethinking how we design communities. At the same time, advances in communication infrastructure and data gathering can make our communities smarter in nearly every way imaginable.

Smarter design

"In the future, the vision for how we design our communities is to curb outward growth and instead develop more centrally located, higher density, mixed-use communities," says Keri Ryan, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering. "This will reduce the need for people to drive everywhere and spend so much of their lives and their resources on getting around."

Artist rendering of individuals working and talking in futuristic city

Transportation regularly emerges as a focal point in discussions about how to design sustainable communities. That's because choices about transportation have a ripple effect on all kinds of other urban design choices, including perennial pain points such as parking and traffic congestion. But reversing decades of design and development based around the car is easier said than done.

"The challenge in civil infrastructure more than any other field is that a lot of decisions that we make are controlled by policy and the government," Ryan explains. "We have to have policy on our side. Transportation planners need to share the vision."

Here in Reno, the three-year-long project to redesign the Virginia Street Corridor featured a central trade-off between car-centric development, with ample traffic lanes and street parking, and pedestrian- and bike-friendly development, with wide sidewalks, lush landscaping to provide shade during Nevada's hot summers, and lanes for bikers. After significant debate, the final design includes wider sidewalks and landscaping for pedestrians but street parking will stay at the expense of a dedicated bike lane - a nod to the continued dominance of the car. At least for now.

"I think the need for having your own personal vehicle is diminishing," says Ryan "A real futuristic vision is in 10 to 20 years we evolve into a community that relies on shared, autonomous vehicles. If we live in self-contained communities, we've reduced our personal transportation needs dramatically. We'll have less need to get around, and when we do, we call on the ride share service. If everyone is doing it, we can get away from single car, single person to autonomous vanpools, maybe autonomous busses."

Smarter Roads

But autonomous vehicles won't instantly replace human drivers. Instead, the next few decades will be characterized by mixed traffic, where vehicles equipped with some autonomous technology share the road with human drivers.

While it might seem like a good thing for a human driver to be able to grab the wheel, this transition phase is actually the most challenging for engineers. Asking robots to share the roads with humans takes away one of their biggest advantages when it comes to safe driving: global knowledge. Robotic cars are completely predictable to one another, knowing where every other vehicle in the system is at all times. Human drivers, on the other hand, are anything but completely predictable.

That is why Hao Xu is focused on developing technologies for the intervening decade (or two or three) where humans and robots share the road. Using lidar sensors, he's developing a system to get the benefits of global knowledge before global adoption.

Xu's technology focuses on connected vehicles. While driverless cars have captured most of the public's attention in terms of futuristic driving technology, connected vehicles are quietly capturing the attention of federal and state departments of transportation.

"Connected vehicles are really a hot topic for the U.S. Department of Transportation and Department of Energy right now," says Xu, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering. "Basically the idea is to have vehicles talk with each other and also communicate with traffic signal controllers so drivers can know what is happening beyond their line of sight."

Xu and his team are implementing lidar sensors at intersections up and down a three-mile stretch of Virginia Street, running from the University of Nevada, Reno through the city's downtown and midtown districts. The sensors gather information about cars, animals and pedestrians approaching the intersections and send that information to a device in a connected vehicle. Even without every car on the road being connected, the sensors allow connected drivers to know what other vehicles are doing.

"This really is a new direction for how the government can build a real, smart city," says Xu. "When the government puts money into this infrastructure, the public will immediately benefit from that. I think in 10 years, we will see sensor-based arterial roads around Reno."

Sensor-based roads serve both connected vehicles with a human driver and autonomous vehicles that are connected to the grid. The sensors also send information back to the system, which can be used for a number of applications: adaptive signal timing, automatically triggered lights when pedestrians are approaching a crosswalk or automated warnings when wildlife are approaching roads in rural areas.

"Right now pedestrian safety is a really big concern for Nevada," says Xu. "I believe this technology can make a big difference."

Smarter materials

Smarter cities are safer cities in many ways. Civil engineers at the University of Nevada, Reno are leading the push to design resilient infrastructure in a way that not only minimizes loss of life during extreme events - the current minimum standard - but also limits damage and preserves functionality.

"This is a tough issue because the economic viability of designing resilient communities is often questioned," says Ryan. "The problem is that very large earthquakes are rather infrequent, so the overwhelming philosophy has been to design for life safety and controlled damage. We want to prevent collapse and preserve life safety but it's been considered much cheaper to tolerate some damage."

So engineers are turning to innovative building materials to achieve low damage without radically changing building methods.

A leading contender at the moment is engineered cementious composite, or ECC, which uses polyvinal fibers to reinforce the concrete, allowing it to sustain loads without apparent damage, leading to its nickname of bendable concrete.

"We're looking at methods now that can achieve low damage without conceptually changing the way structures are designed and built, just using different materials," says Ryan. "So for the contractor it's not much of a change, and the smart materials limit the damage and can help to recenter a structural element after the shaking. We can make a lot of improvements by continuing to go down this road. We're making a lot of progress."

Smart metal technology makes real-world debut in Seattle bridge

Bridge built with smart materials on top of the shake table

An earthquake-proof bridge may sound futuristic, but one was recently completed in downtown Seattle.

Drawing on the innovative work of Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Saiid Saiidi, the University partnered with the Washington Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration to build a bridge using smart materials that bend but do not break under earthquake forces.

“We have solved the problem of survivability. We can keep a bridge usable after a strong earthquake,” Saiid Saiidi said. “With these techniques and materials, we will usher in a new era of super earthquake-resilient structures.”

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