FAIRFAX, Va. — America's interstate highways stretch across 47,000 miles of the country, but one stretch of interstate is unlike any other in the nation.
"This is the first of our vision,” said Alberto Gonzalez, president and CEO of Cintra U.S., which is installing new technology at highway interchanges along miles of I-66 in Virginia.
Located just outside Washington, D.C., that stretch of I-66 is one of the most heavily-traveled roads in the country.
"We believe infrastructure is going to play a significant role," Gonzalez said about how driverless vehicles will travel on roads.
Animation provided by the company shows how the technology would work when it is fully up and running in early 2023. Sensors placed along the highway will be able to communicate directly with an autonomous vehicle, warning it of any potential obstacles or traffic congestion ahead.
"The information is captured by those sensors and is sent to a system that will evaluate the information that is coming from the devices, process it, and make sure that it's a real event, a real incident," Gonzalez said.
It would be a far different scenario on the roads than what currently exists in much of the country.
"We've had autonomous vehicles being tested on roadways in the United States for the last 10 years, and they've been doing that without any type of additional technology in the infrastructure,” said Stan Caldwell, executive director of the Traffic21 Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, which conducts research on technology and transportation.
Caldwell said adding highway sensors for driverless vehicles could help make them safer by providing information beyond just what the vehicle itself is picking up.
"In any computing system, the more information a system has, the better decisions it can make," he said. "Having additional sensors in the infrastructure can help improve the information that's coming to the vehicles."
When it comes to autonomous vehicles on the roads, Americans are divided.
A recent Pew Research Center survey found that 44% think driverless vehicles are a bad idea, 26% percent think they're a good idea, and 29% say they're not sure.
Beyond driverless vehicles, experts say smart sensors on roadways could potentially help other drivers, too, who are in cars that have features like lane assist or automatic braking.
"These are automated feature that are already in our vehicles today,” Caldwell said, “and if these vehicles are able to have information from the infrastructure through what we call 'vehicle to infrastructure communication,' then they're able to get more information to be more accurate in the use of those applications.”
It is highway technology that could become critical both now and in the future as more fully driverless vehicles take to the roads.