Tennessee’s Interstate 75 sounds less like a motorway and more like a magical tour. The charm begins at Chattanooga and you are romanced all the way to Jellico by way of Knoxville. Your journey follows the Tennessee Valley from Georgia until you reach the beautiful lake city of Rocky Top, named after a bluegrass song. At this point your car climbs the Cumberland Mountains before crossing over into Kentucky.

The view cannot be improved but your reality could be augmented by the poetic names they give their roads, such as Racoon Valley, Sugar Limb, Stinking Creek and Rarity Mountain.

For locals though, the most important reality is being able to see their hands in front of their faces. Not because of moonshine, but because this is an area prone to dramatic changes in visibility. Fog descends quickly and the unexpected loss of visibility causes carnage.

In 1978 sixty-two cars crashed in dense fog near the Bowater paper mill, injuring 46 people. In 1990, the same area saw a 99 vehicle accident that caused 12 deaths and 56 injuries.

The cause of these fogs are a moot point. Some experts say natural temperature inversion can cause thick and unrelenting fog as higher-level air is warmer than its lower counterpart, causing moisture to be held in place. Crash victims and their lawyers argue the paper mill makes this deadly fog with its water vapour emissions. Law suits have been cautiously settled, but liabilities limited.

As a result, fog warning systems were created, including the re-striping of the road with extra markings to make it more visible and fog detection sensors.

However, as with all motorway information systems, it took a long time for the intelligence provided by the sensors to make it into the electronic displays. As a result, drivers were not warned quickly enough to stop them from choosing this deadly route.

So Tennessee Department of Transport turned to Cisco’s IoT department to fine tune the response. The network of fog sensors along the route was having its own problems getting its signals to travel along the information superhighway. Data from the fog sensors would journey along buried cable to multiple roadside servers, which turned out to have a high failure rate and an even higher cost of maintenance.

But it was the lack of automation that slowed the system down. Machines, though intelligent, were not empowered to make decisions. This meant that systems had to be manually updated and the fog gates, which stopped people from heading into fatal conditions, could only be closed by human intervention.

Nick Booth

So fatal conditions could be in place for hours before the officers from Regional Traffic Centre had read the reports, let alone got their boots on and started their cars. TDOT’s ‘augmented reality’ was often two hours old by the time action was taken.

It was Cisco IoT that integrated and automated the fog gates and arguably saved lives. It did this by upgrading the routing and switching speed limits and redesigning the way data travels on the IoT so that the machines making the decisions are closer to the intelligence. So a Cisco Kinetic Edge fog processing module is at the heart of the management team, with an automated field network director managing the gateway across a much simpler management infrastructure.

As a result, the response to fog is closer to instant, gates are automatically closed and drivers are kept out of the fatal conditions.

But who is to blame for the build up of deadly fog? That’s one for the scientists to tackle and the lobbyists to oppose. Maybe the IoT could resolve that one day too.

The author of this blog is Nick Booth, freelance IT and communications writer

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