Over 1,000 deaths on Virginia’s roads last year, but a high-tech trial suggests safer streets within a few years.

Over 1,000 deaths on Virginia's roads last year, but a high-tech trial suggests safer streets within a few years.

5G Intersection

Revolutionizing Road Safety with 5G Technology

This article is part of “5G Playbook,” a series exploring one of our time’s most important tech innovations.

Road Danger

An Alarming Reality

It’s a sad fact of life that the more you drive, the more danger you put yourself in. In 2022, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported 1.35 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled in the United States. Dangerous driving can cost lives, especially at perilous road intersections where accidents are more likely to occur. However, a breakthrough technology being trialed on a controlled-access rural road in Virginia could help save lives.

The Need for Speed

“We have been developing IT and networking infrastructure for a long time, from 2G and 3G up to 5G,” says Masahiko Mack Nakagawa, the vice president of the corporate-business-development division at NEC, one of the partners behind the Virginia project. While previous generations of technology have laid the groundwork for cellular networks, their operating speeds are insufficient for real-time data transmission. This limitation prevents immediate information exchange between vehicles and pedestrians, hindering accident prevention.

Enter 5G: The Game Changer

The lightning-fast speed at which 5G can transmit data through mobile internet signals opens up a wealth of possibilities. With the power of artificial intelligence (AI), 5G technology can collect, analyze, and make decisions based on real-time data within split seconds. This exceptional processing speed, which matches the timing of accidents, enables the identification of hazardous conditions on the road, such as approaching pedestrians or animals, prompting drivers to take evasive action.

Unleashing the Potential

The Virginia trial involved the installation of cameras and private 5G base stations on signal poles to capture and broadcast real-time high-definition video across a private 5G network. The video data was then fed into an AI-powered analysis system to detect potential risks. “If a car is approaching the intersection, the AI will analyze if the car is going straight, turning right, or turning left, and how many pedestrians are at the intersection,” explains Nakagawa. Once the AI identifies a risk of an accident, the system broadcasts information to both pedestrians and vehicles, ensuring that everyone is aware of the impending danger.

Realizing a Science Fiction Dream

The trial took place between January and March in Blacksburg, Virginia, on one of the test tracks at the Virginia Smart Roads facility—a global leader in advanced testing. Throughout the experiment, the system analyzed real-time video using AI and successfully broadcast warning signals to vehicles and pedestrians. To further enhance safety, the research team introduced an LED light mat to illuminate the side of the road when a vehicle approaches, preventing collisions.

In total, 66 use cases were tested, including scenarios involving motorcycles, bicycles, and various complex situations. Nakagawa shares, “We made sure that in all those use cases, the application had enough accuracy and enough performance.” “Performance,” for this experiment, refers to the system’s ability to analyze data and provide advice within a short timeframe, enabling drivers to prevent fatal collisions. Remarkably, the 5G-enabled communications tool also demonstrated its potential for use in automated driving.

Beyond Traffic Monitoring

The system’s capabilities extend beyond traffic and pedestrian monitoring. In addition to identifying potential accidents, the technology incorporates video analytics tools for detecting unusual pedestrian behavior. For instance, it can detect if a pedestrian falls down and remains motionless at an intersection for 45 seconds, triggering a call for assistance. This feature adds an extra layer of safety and illustrates the versatility of 5G-based solutions.

Saving Lives on Virginia’s Roads

The importance of this innovation cannot be understated, especially in Virginia, where over 1,000 individuals lost their lives on the roads in 2022, according to Drive Smart Virginia. Shockingly, pedestrian fatalities in the state increased by 37% in 2022 compared to the previous year. State and county transportation departments are optimistic regarding the trial’s outcomes. The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute believes this proof of concept will “improve road safety by informing vehicles and pedestrians of possible traffic hazards when passing through an intersection,” says Mike Mollenhauer, the director of the technology-implementation division at the institute.

A Vision for a Safer Future

The success of the Virginia project has far-reaching implications beyond state borders. “We have very high expectations that the 5G-enabled world will come,” says Nakagawa. He envisions a future where such technologies are implemented not only in the United States but also in Japan. While the implementation process may take three to five years, the potential impact is immense. With 5G technology leading the way, a safer, high-tech road network can become a reality, significantly reducing accidents and saving countless lives.