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U.S. Department of Transportation U.S. Department of Transportation Icon United States Department of Transportation United States Department of Transportation

Public Roads - November/December 2012

November/December 2012
Issue No:
Vol. 76 No. 3
Publication Number:
Table of Contents

Guest Editorial

Living Laboratories: Taking Research to the Streets

edit01For many, the terms "research" and "laboratory" conjure images of solitary scientists in white smocks hunched over their lab benches, engineers crunching numbers at their computers, and graduate students running experiments for their advisors. At the Federal Highway Administration's (FHWA) Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center, there is a new initiative underway in the Office of Operations Research and Development (R&D) under the rubric of "living laboratories" that promises to create yet another picture of what transportation research might look like in the future.

To understand the concept of living laboratories, it helps to have some background on FHWA's Saxton Transportation Operations Laboratory and how the living laboratory idea evolved. The FHWA laboratory has a significant investment in traffic simulation, as demonstrated by past projects, internal expertise, and ongoing results that have become part of the lab's operations. To calibrate simulation tools and make them useful for testing new ideas, extensive observations are necessary to study the functioning of existing transportation systems. This observational research takes place on actual roadways -- living laboratories -- and helps researchers adjust and validate simulations.

Once a simulation has demonstrated the viability and benefits of a design or innovation in the virtual world, living laboratories are critical to test and demonstrate the effectiveness of the idea in the real world. For example, FHWA researchers are working with colleagues from the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) to enhance and extend simulations involving cooperative adaptive cruise control and speed harmonization to model a living laboratory on I—66 in northern Virginia.

The FHWA laboratory staff and VDOT researchers will conduct these experiments on a segment of highway that they collaboratively identified as a road experiencing traffic congestion that has a significant impact on surrounding communities. The researchers will instrument a limited number of vehicles with communications devices, sensors, and software featuring algorithms developed for these experiments through simulation models. The algorithms are first validated on a small scale at the Saxton Transportation Operations Laboratory and then taken to the highway for real-world testing.

The FHWA laboratory also plans to test technologies developed through the Connected Vehicle Program sponsored by the U.S. Department of Transportation's Intelligent Transportation Systems Joint Program Office. These tests will take place around the country in other cooperative living laboratories characterized by differing network geometries and local driving behaviors. The diversity of the U.S. population and terrain makes the concept of living laboratories especially important to testing and validating algorithms and concepts for acceptance and safe use nationwide.

Do you have a candidate living laboratory near you? The Saxton Transportation Operations Laboratory is seeking to accelerate the transfer of good ideas for better transportation operations from academia directly to testing on living laboratory roads and test tracks across the country. Staff members at the FHWA lab are developing a concept for identifying and cataloging researchers, living laboratory facilities, and programs nationwide. The end result will be a knowledge resource that can accelerate opportunities for collaboration and testing innovative ideas on the road. If you'd like to participate, please contact Ben McKeever at

The transportation laboratory of the future is here. And you just might have driven through it on your way to work today.

Daniel J. Dailey, Ph.D.

Professor, Department of Electrical Engineering

University of Washington

Visiting Researcher

FHWA, Office of Operations R&D