If you follow the news out of DOT and such, we are on the verge of a brave new world of “intelligent transportation systems” that will talk to cars and maybe even us and maybe even drive themselves. Well, they’ve got some work to do…

We had a bit of snow saturday and I needed to be in “the cities” (greater MSP) on sunday. So I was hoping to drag the trailer with and retrieve the BMW F800S from my garage in Minneapolis. Said trailer has no brakes, immitates a sail when empty on ice, and tries to steer the Golf that’s pulling it when loaded on ice. So I figured I’d better check the road conditions before I left sunday morning to insure I’d have an ice and snow free route.

Let me introduce you to RWIS, short for RoadWay Information Systems. It’s an early implementation of parts of the highway part of “intelligent highways”, and even at this early stage can provide a lot of useful info to the intelligent road user… When it works. Say you’re a motorcycliss who’s tempted to go for a ride on the first spring day, just as the temp bursts abover freezing. You check the local RWIS website and find that while the air temps are a couple degrees above freezing, the road surface temps are a couple degrees below. So you have another cup of coffee or two, and check back. OK, road’s warmed up, so you check the camera… Oooh, kinda suspect glistening  in the shadowed spot on the ridge. So you go for a ride, but stick to the warmer valley for today.

So sunday morning I check MN DOT’s RWIS site at http://www.rwis.dot.state.mn.us in hopes of finding some road info. I click on the “cameras” tab, and not a single image will load. Now MN DOT doesn’t publicize this site, and I can see why- even with no more than maybe a handful of DOT workers viewing the site, it can’t deliver a single image. Even today, with no weather of interest, you could probably brew and consume a cup of coffee just waiting for it to load. And a lot of the cameras and sites have been down… For months.

So I click on “RWIS sites”, which being narrowband should at least give me some data on road temps and precipitation at the sites. Gee, the site nearest me at MP 6.59 on US 14 reports an air temp of 79 degrees and a surface temp of 96 degrees! That site was knocked down and out by a tornado on July 1st, It and the tower it was mounted on laid in the ditch for weeks during a state government shutdown and it still hasn’t been replaced. Look down the list of RWIS sites and you’ll find a bunch more showing “error” or improbable data indicating they’ve been down for some time.

So I turn to MN DOT’s “consumer” site at http://www.511.mn.org . No useful cameras here, the nearest working one is in “the cities” 140 miles away. So I go to the text reports, which look suspiciously similar (fair driving conditions, slippery spots, blowing snow, etc. ) to what they said nearly twelve hours ago. Yet they’ve all been magicly “updated” withing the last couple hours at 5 a.m.. Now the way MNDOT acquires this data works like this: At a given time interval, the State Patrol dispatchers ask the troopers over the radio “how are the roads?”. Problem is, out here past the metro there are no troopers on duty at 5 a.m. to ask, so MN DOT just puts a fresh time stamp on the old stale data.

So given this lack of info, I left the trailer home. From the looks of the roads I probably could have trailered just fine, but I had no road information current enough to base a decision on. And “intelligent highways”? You gotta be kidding!