Climate Adaptation and the Car Behind You

Recently, I heard Paul Pisano of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) give an inspiring talk sponsored by the University Center for Atmospheric Research about how high tech helps to keep us safer on snow-swept and other climate-changed highways.  (His talk, incidentally, was at the Boulder Chautauqua in Colorado where I was vacationing with my family, and perhaps the most remarkable thing about it was that residents paid $10 to attend, illustrating the high degree of interest in learning what's new in climate.)

Paul manages research and development programs that address the effect of weather on all aspects of the highway system, including winter maintenance, traffic management and traveler information. He noted that in 2010, 7,130 people died on America’s highways from adverse weather conditions. Indeed, one in four of the nation’s 1.5 million-plus crashes annually (24%) is due to bad weather. (See chart.) In addition, trucking delays due to weather cost more than $3.1 billion annually for the 50 largest U.S. cities. And, lost productivity from snow closures can cost up to $10 billion a day.

The FHWA employs many tactics to keep the roads as safe as possible in adverse weather, but the one I find most compelling relies on the cars that drive the roads. Cars can gather data on air temperature, barometric pressure, headlight status and windshield-wiper use, among other measures. Sharing such data with FHWA allows the agency to determine everything from whether precipitation is falling to whether standing water exists on the road. These mobile-data sources offer a thorough picture of the weather, informing decisions about what sort of equipment and chemicals are deployed, what warnings are shared with drivers and, in the event of an accident, what weather impact might have contributed to it.

Given the mass of vehicles on the roads and how many miles they’re driven, the amount of data about them can prove overwhelming. And driver anonymity also is a factor. Still, I’m hopeful that as we enter an era of more severe and unpredictable weather, vehicle data will combine with traditional meteorological observations in intelligent ways to reduce delays and accidents on our highways.