Why The Highways Of Tomorrow Need Lightning Rods

Many people with home computers have learned the hard way that thunderstorms aren't kind to PCs. When lightning strikes an outside power or phone line, a surge of electricity can fry a computer's innards. Unfortunately, most traffic engineers don't yet realize that their fancy new computerized equipment is even more vulnerable, warns John Rohrbaugh, a senior research engineer at Georgia Institute of Technology's research arm. And the situation can only get worse.

That's because states and cities are flocking to grab a share of Washington's megabuck Intelligent Vehicle Highway Systems (IVHS) project, which promises to ease rush-hour crushes without building new roads. Making highways "smart" means connecting vehicle sensors in the roads to a traffic-management computer. All those new wires provide more avenues for lightning attacks. Rohrbaugh knows: He worked on defending military computers from the electromagnetic pulses unleashed by nuclear explosions. He has put together a handbook suggesting off-the-shelf technology, such as surge protectors, that traffic engineers can use to protect against lightning.

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