SXSW 2018: Wyoming’s Plan to Connect Semi Trucks and Reduce Traffic Deaths

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The greatest benefit that self-driving cars could bring to humanity would be a reduction in traffic deaths. Policymakers, car company executives, and safety advocates look forward to the day when self-driving cars can dramatically reduce or eliminate the 3,400 deaths that occur every day because of traffic accidents.

But self-driving cars are only just starting to make their way onto public roads in the sunniest of U.S. suburbs. At this early stage, autonomous vehicles are still steering clear of hazards such as snow and ice that often cause human drivers to wreck.

This means self-driving cars won’t be able to save us from the most challenging driving conditions any time soon. But the state of Wyoming is moving forward with a pilot project that will use other technologies to improve the way humans drive, in an effort to reduce traffic deaths along a particularly deadly stretch of road.

Ali Ragan, a communications officer for the Wyoming Department of Transportation (WYDOT), spoke with IEEE Spectrum about the project at the 2018 South by Southwest Interactive conference in Austin, Texas.

The highway in question is Interstate 80 (I-80), which runs across southern Wyoming. It’s a major corridor for semi trucks hauling freight between the Midwest and the West Coast. In fact, semis make up 30 to 40 percent of the 11,000 to 16,000 vehicles that travel on I-80 each day, and up to 70 percent of that traffic during winter months.

But I-80, which sits nearly 2 kilometers (6,000 feet) above sea level, is often covered in snow and ice in winter. Strong winds blow snow across the road, causing low visibility. (“Wyoming’s very windy. It’s very, very windy,” Ragan says.) Every year, there are 1,500 traffic accidents on the interstate.

In fact, semi trucks driving in wintery conditions on I-80 have been known to drive straight into massive pile-ups involving dozens of vehicles. In 2015, two such pile-ups occurred in just one week. Seventy vehicles collided in the first pile-up, and 59 vehicles crashed in the second.

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