Near the heart of Ann Arbor, the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI) is building a city. Spanning 30 acres, it will be complete with fire hydrants, street lights, and parking meters. Gates at railroad crossings will flash, raise, and lower. Animatronic pedestrians and bicyclists will cross intersections and wheel down bike lanes.
The Mobility Transformation Facility will be a test track for a new type of car: the connected car.
Some cars already have connected features, such as an alert if another car is in the driver’s blind spot. But a fully connected car, the kind that the Mobility Transformation Facility ideally would be testing, could communicate with other connected cars, with connected roadway infrastructure, with devices, and with the cloud. It could give the driver instructions or be automated, making decisions and acting upon the data that it gathers from other vehicles and its environment.
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It’s worth building a city (albeit a small one) to test connected cars because of their potential to make roadways safe, efficient, and environmentally friendly.
“Through wireless technology, connected vehicles ranging from cars, to trucks and buses, to trains could one day be able to communicate important safety and mobility information to one another that helps save lives, prevent injuries, ease traffic congestion and improve the environment,” says U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx in an email interview.
The Transportation Department has partnered with the facility’s parent organization, UMTRI’s Mobility Transformation Center, a public-private research and development project that focuses on connected and automated vehicles.
By 2016, Foxx even plans to mandate an aspect of connected cars—vehicle-to-vehicle communication—which would impact new vehicles on United States roadways; vehicle-to-vehicle communication is the wireless exchange of data, such as a car’s speed, between vehicles.
“From our testing facility in Michigan to automakers already incorporating this technology into cars today, we’re starting to see the immediate benefits of vehicle-to-vehicle communication,” Foxx says.
The Mobility Transformation Center has become a hub of innovation. Because roads are not going to change as quickly as vehicles will change, the Mobility Transformation Facility will be a test bed for the real-world environments that will be most challenging for connected cars to navigate, such as traffic circles, tunnels, and pedestrian cross walks, says James Sayer, the deployment director for the center and a research scientist at UMTRI.
The safety benefits of connected cars fuels much of the DOT’s involvement in this research. By exchanging anonymous safety data amongst each other, connected cars are able to warn drivers about impending collisions with other cars, such as if a car slams on its breaks or an oncoming vehicle emerges from behind a truck. Vehicle-to-vehicle communication alone can help avoid or mitigate 70 to 80 percent of vehicle crashes between unimpaired drivers, says Foxx
“Vehicle-to-vehicle technology represents the next generation of auto safety improvements, building on the life-saving achievements we've already seen with safety belts and air bags,” Foxx says in an email interview. “This technology could move us from helping people survive crashes to helping them avoid crashes altogether.”
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Aggregating and analyzing the data that individual connected cars emit could potentially rid the roadways of congestion. Kevin Balke, a research engineer at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, an academic partner of the Mobility Transformation Center, studies how to use the continuous updates that connected cars send about their locations and velocities to make roadways more efficient, such as re-routing cars in real time to less congested routes, or timing traffic lights to interrupt the flow of traffic as little as possible. “Contrary to popular belief, we don’t want to stop cars at traffic signals,” Balke laughs.
IMPROVING FUEL EFFICIENCY
This increased mobility could also increase fuel efficiency. Ideally, connected cars wouldn’t waste gas idling in traffic or circling for parking spots. Instead, they would be re-routed to traffic-less routes and communicate with parking spots ahead of time to find an open spot.
EVOLVING PUBLIC POLICY
Results from connected car studies spurred the DOT’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to issue an advance notice of proposed rulemaking in August. This means that DOT is informing automobile manufacturers that it might create policies mandating that cars have certain aspects of connectivity. As evidenced by the Mobility Transformation Center’s diverse partners, automobile manufacturers are developing a mix of conventional and new partnerships to create the future’s connected car.
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“We believe the shared expertise and benefit of working together as industry leaders is critical to advancing the future of mobility solutions and the connected car,” says Jim Buczkowski, a Henry Ford Technical Fellow and Director of Electrical and Electronics Systems in Research and Advanced Engineering at Ford Motor Company. Ford is a founding partner of the Mobility Transformation Center.
“[Connected cars] are going to change the way that we as traffic managers are going to think about data and what’s available for us to make our decisions,” Balke says.
Ann Arbor is already outfitted with connected cars and connected infrastructure from a two-year pilot program that ended in August. It was conducted by UMTRI and the DOT under previous Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. The cars emit data about how people respond to feedback from the connected devices. UMTRI expects to increase the amount of connected infrastructure and vehicles in Ann Arbor through continuing research with the DOT and other sponsors, so that the moment a vehicle inside the Mobility Transformation Facility is safe for public roads, it can drive out of the facility gates into connected Ann Arbor.
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