Smart Cities

Why Chattanooga is betting on lidar for traffic management

“What Chattanooga is doing is unlocking a technology that hasn’t been used at a wide scale in the United States.”
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Jacob Boomsma/Getty Images

· 4 min read

Lidar is commonly applied to in-car tech, but in the city of Chattanooga, it could be on its way to becoming critical infrastructure on the street level.

The southeastern Tennessee city of nearly 200,000 is in the midst of deploying lidar sensors at intersections around town. Seoul Robotics have said that its planned deployment to 86 intersections in Chattanooga is the largest-scale project of its kind in the US, and that it will help better manage traffic flow and improve pedestrian and vehicle safety.

“What Chattanooga is doing is unlocking a technology that hasn’t been used at a wide scale in the United States,” Dan Work, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Vanderbilt University, told Tech Brew. “If it works well, it can showcase a different way to enhance measurement at intersections, that’s deployable not just in other communities in Tennessee, but around the country and potentially around the world.”

Chattanooga’s Department of Innovation Delivery and Performance, with South Korea-based Seoul Robotics and the Center of Urban Informatics and Progress (CUIP) at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, will build out the network supported by a $4.5+ million grant from the Department of Transportation.

Over the last decade cities have done limited pilots to test traffic safety tech, but federal agencies like the DOT, which is in partnership with the city of Chattanooga, are now looking to see how projects and pilots can be done at scale beyond the single road corridor pilots that some cities have adopted, Austin Harris, testbed manager at the CUIP, told Tech Brew.

In fact, the new lidar project is an expansion on an idea Chattanooga explored back in 2019. The city developed a 1.2 mile stretch of its downtown with cameras, lidar, radar, and audio devices to experiment with and test new technologies as part of their push to reach zero traffic fatalities as part of the city’s commitment to “Vision Zero.”

Now, the city is hoping that by scaling the smart intersections project up to such a large deployment, it can pave the way for electric vehicles, while drawing out lessons and data that might be useful to other cities around the country on infrastructure and traffic safety, Harris told us.

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Each intersection is outfitted with two to three sensors, so that if one sensor misses an object, the redundancy helps ensure it’s captured from a different angle, William Muller, VP of business development at Seoul Robotics, told Tech Brew.  In addition to the lidar sensors, the intersections have air quality and weather sensors, and all the data that the intersections will collect will feed into the a digital twin simulation the city is developing to try and give real time predictions on the state of traffic.

“The hope is to take this 24/7 data, [and] understand how things progress through the day,” Muller said. “They’re going to be ingesting all this data, and then actually bringing that into an analysis dashboard essentially, that allows them to obviously then better plan their city operations based on that from an expansion point of view, as well as a modernization.”

The city’s deployment of the intersections will occur in phases, but Muller told us in January that 12 are already built. The hope is to potentially finish the project by Q2 2024, Harris said, and each intersection is expected to cost anywhere between $20,000 to $25,000 depending on how much equipment is needed at each position.

Chattanooga isn’t the only US city trying to improve its intersections through the use of technology.

While it didn’t use lidar in its operations, the city of Pittsburgh created its own traffic data management system through a partnership with Carnegie Mellon University, dubbed Surtrac, which it plans to install in 200 out of 610 traffic intersections around Pittsburgh. And Ann Arbor, Michigan, was granted $9.95 million in 2021 by the Federal Highway Administration to develop more than 20 smart intersections outfitted with cameras, radar, and infrared sensors.

“We sense so little about how we currently use the infrastructure,” Work said. “And so finding ways to change that paradigm and get more information is really going to hold the key to making those intersections as efficient and as safe as possible.”

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