Truck platooning, electronically connected vehicles and other projects are in the works.

From NASCAR-like aerodynamics to synchronized braking, new Smart Columbus practices and technologies have the potential to make logistics faster, cleaner and safer.

Since beating out 77 other cities to win a $40 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation, Columbus' public and private sectors have been identifying and prioritizing a host of projects aimed at transforming mobility throughout the region. The city's reputation as a logistics center made issues related to improved freight transport an obvious choice for inclusion in the project, says Michael Stevens, chief innovation officer for the city of Columbus. With the Rickenbacker transportation and logistics centers one of the busiest hubs in the nation, “we showed we had a test market,” Stevens says.

“Columbus is really an up-and-coming city, and improving and modernizing the movement of goods and people can give us a competitive advantage and has the potential to be transformative,” says John Ness, president and CEO of ODW Logistics, Inc.

Getting from here to there is something we might take for granted, but it's No. 1 on the minds of those involved in Smart Columbus. In 2016, the city beat out the likes of San Francisco, Denver, Pittsburgh and Portland to win the Smart Cities Challenge prize—$40 million from the U.S. Department of Transportation to create a smart transportation system and $10 million from Vulcan Inc. to reduce carbon fuel consumption and greenhouse gases.

Support from corporate and public institutions such as AEP and Ohio State University have parlayed that into some $500 million to be used to create intelligent transportation systems that will serve as models for cities across the country. Changing demographics and a thriving workplace environment underscore the need for a new way of thinking about mobility, Stevens says.

“It's estimated that by 2050, there will be another 1 million people living in central Ohio,” Stevens says. “How do we accommodate that growth? You can't just build your way out of it.”

At the same time, he says, safe and efficient mobility is a key component of a city's “livability,” an essential tool for attracting and retaining top-tier businesses and a high-caliber workforce.

A reputation for strong public-private partnerships and a spirit of collaboration helped differentiate Columbus in the challenge, says Mark Patton, vice president of Smart Columbus for the Columbus Partnership. “We got the grant not because we're already the smartest city, but because we understand that the key is to take advantage of new technologies to allow more seamless mobility.”

The cornerstone of the overall project is the Smart Columbus Operating System, which will collect, fuse and disseminate data to enable the various initiatives to communicate with one another.

The logistics project is an example of combining next-generation communication systems with real-life conditions.In the field of logistics, high levels of activity come with complications. A recently updated Smart Columbus project portfolio notes freight-induced congestion and queuing as “significant challenges.”

Two related initiatives—electronically connected vehicles and truck platooning—are high-priority components of the Smart Columbus logistics project aimed at improving safety and efficiency on the road.

Platooning relies on connectivity technology and automated driving support systems to link two or more trucks. Using digital short-range communication devices and adaptive cruise control, trucks maintain a set distance from one another that is closer than normal.

The closed distance creates a “draft” similar to that in auto racing, reducing wind resistance and improving aerodynamics and fuel efficiency, Stevens says. In addition, the automated systems simultaneously apply brakes to all trucks in the platoon when sensors detect danger ahead on the road.

When not in main highways, connected platoons will receive signal priority, which allows two trucks to go through an intersection during the same signal phase. By making data about road conditions available in real time and connecting it through multiple platforms, route drivers can route around congestion more effectively, Ness says.

He says platooning can help address another issue facing the logistics industry: a national driver shortage. A feature such as adaptive cruise control “can reduce anxiety and has the potential to significantly reduce hard braking. It creates a better experience for the driver,” Ness says. Improved efficiencies also could mean less time in the cab, another plus in attracting and keeping good drivers, he says. Plans call for building an 80-mile platoon test route on I-70 from west Columbus to near Byesville, Ohio, Stevens says.

Ness says Columbus already has an edge in factors that positively influence logistics: geographic reach (where goods can travel in one day), topography, labor force and climate. “We have a quality workforce that supports supply chain and logistics,” he says. “Companies are constantly looking to optimize networks,” and leading-edge transportation technology has a major part to play. “We are delighted to be part of a really cool movement.”

Other Smart Columbus logistics-related projects are truck parking availability and bridge dimension notification. As currently envisioned, the Smart Columbus Operating System, the critical player in all eight USDOT projects, will publish data feeds about where truck parking and rest stops are available, as well as information about bridge dimensions.

The parking and bridge data currently exist through the Mid America Association of State Transportation Officials and the Ohio Department of Transportation, respectively. Smart Columbus leaders hope to entice developers to harness the information and create applications for widespread use.

As with the other project initiatives, “at the end of the day, this isn't about technology for technology's sake,” says Patton of the Columbus Partnership. “We're hoping to create a revolution and a disruption in the ways people and goods move. … There are a lot of chapters yet to be written.”

Laurie Allen is a freelance writer.