Fayetteville Firm Develops Traffic Warning System

It took getting rear-ended by a big rig in an early morning, rush-hour traffic jam on I-540 in northwest Arkansas for the VisuaLogistic Technologies light bulb to flick on in Brett Schaefer’s head.

But go off it did. Now the Fayetteville startup is poised, in partnership with the state, to introduce its Automated Detection Alert System, or ADAS, to Arkansas highways. 

The system entails a series of wireless, solar-powered roadside sensors placed roughly a quarter-mile apart and roughly 5 to 10 feet off the road that are updated in real time to inform drivers of what’s ahead — congested traffic, emergency vehicles, even hazardous conditions. Each sensor will flash different colors based on the conditions ahead — for example, yellow for stalled traffic. 

Schaefer said once the system has completed testing, drivers will be educated through multiple outlets about what condition each color represents.

It’s all designed to help drivers avoid what happened to Schaefer in 2011. The truck that hit him was unaware of sudden gridlock and its driver didn’t have time to react before striking Schaefer’s car. 

Schaefer wasn’t seriously injured, but his car was totaled. And he got to thinking that there had to be a better way.

"As with any major interstate, there are morning and evening traffic jams and nobody knows when or where it will pile up, often causing an ‘accordion effect’ of traffic where commuters all come to sudden slowdowns or complete stops in short distances, ultimately causing major incidences involving multiple vehicles," he said. 

Schaefer said he wondered if there was a way to combine traffic monitoring systems such as traffic cameras with traffic warning systems such as roadside digital message boards to give oncoming commuters hazardous traffic warnings in real time plus record traffic flow data.

There wasn’t, so Schaefer became an entrepreneur. 

His team numbers nine, several of them graduate students in the College of Engineering at the University of Arkansas, from which Schaefer holds multiple degrees and where he once served as a grad assistant for Razorback athletics.

The team competed last year at the ARK Challenge accelerator in Fayetteville, and the Innovate Arkansas client firm currently is working with the state to test its patent-pending system. Schaefer hopes to see the Automated Detection Alert System in use on Arkansas highways this year and ultimately in other states.

The devices that house the sensors are inexpensive, low powered (with battery lives of 25 to 30 years), weigh less than a pound each and communicate with each other when placed at sub-mile intervals. Plus, they’re designed to compile traffic flow statistics and send them wirelessly to a centralized data hub, Schaefer said. 

The closest things to ADAS currently on the market are digital message boards and camera monitoring systems, and neither can update drivers in real time about upcoming conditions.

"Both are expensive and inefficient," he said. "Digital message boards are very expensive to purchase up front and maintain and require a manual input of what the message needs to say. As for the camera monitoring systems, they watch traffic but nobody is observing these most of the time, and they don’t give oncoming traffic any warnings of what lies ahead. Our unique device aims to remedy both of these issues and more at less than half the price."

Schaefer said the current market push is vehicle onboard technology (vehicle-to-vehicle or V2V) that can sense proximity to other cars and react accordingly. But V2V technology is available only in luxury models and spans only short distances.

"The ADAS system provides unsurpassed value to all commuters on the road, no matter the vehicle they drive," Schaefer said. "The value to this is not only do all commuters benefit from the warning system, but it keeps drivers’ focus outside of the vehicle, not inside."

The system will include small, mobile “clickers” for emergency vehicles to activate when in pursuit or on a call.

"They can simply push the button, turning the system to all blue within a certain radius, alerting drivers both in front of and behind them or oncoming that they are present," Schaefer said. "This will give drivers ample warning to get out of the way or coordinate lane switches in a timely manner."

The ADAS system not only offers more uses than digital message boards and camera systems, but can be implemented at a fraction of the cost, Schaefer said. Target clients include — and, Schaefer stressed, aren’t limited to — state and federal agencies, local officials, GPS mapping companies and V2V manufacturers. 

Coming soon to a highway near you.