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"Talking" cars get largest-ever safety test at U-M

Westin Book Cadillac Hotel, Detroit
Westin Book Cadillac Hotel, Detroit
Drivers along US-23 and M-14 in Northeast Ann Arbor may not even realize that they will soon be observing a landmark experiment that could change the way we drive – the largest experiment ever of its kind.  
 
The area is the staging ground for a $14.9 million pilot program, funded by the Department of Transportation and run by U-M's Transportation Research Institute, that tests the safety of vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure wireless communication. In other words, the study looks at cars that can "talk" to each other and to the roads, traffic lights and signals around them and evaluates how well they work to ease traffic congestion, reduce crashes and save time and fuel, among other things. 
 
"There are all kind of safety and convenience applications to this," says Jim Sayer, program manager for the Safety Model Deployment Program. Not only will cars be able to communicate with each other – so a driver can receive a warning when someone three cars ahead of him brakes hard, for example – but a fire truck could send a signal to an intersection as it approaches to tell the signals to turn red in all directions, making it safer and faster for the truck to proceed through. 
 
"There are applications related to mobility and sustainability as well," Sayer says. "If we can tell people that there's a crash on M-14 and they should take this detour to Ann Arbor, that saves time, which translates to money, and you reduce people sitting in traffic, which lowers carbon emissions."
 
More than 2,800 personal cars, police cars, buses, delivery trucks and more will be retrofitted with devices that either send information to researchers, or can both send and receive information about other cars' location, traffic, accidents and road conditions. 
 
While the technology has been tested on a smaller scale, nothing of this magnitude has been done before. One of the goals of the program is to find out how wireless vehicle communication technology works in the real world – how it performs on real roads and freeways, how it responds to weather conditions, and how it operates with variable levels of driver skills, and across several different types of vehicles. Researchers are also studying what happens to the signal quality and the transmission of information when hundred of cars communicating wirelessly end up close together on a busy freeway or city street. 
 
Perhaps most importantly, the pilot program will allow researchers to study V2V (vehicle to vehicle) and V2I (vehicle-to-infrastructure) operating as a system versus as discrete pieces of technology. 
 
"What do we learn in the context of real-world deployment?" Sayer says. "If you can't make this work, you have to figure out why -- these are the kinds of technologies that it would be absolutely necessary to work all of the time. They need to be foolproof."
 
U-M provided a perfect mix of terrain, climate and expertise for the pilot program. U-M's Transportation Research Institute is one of the only sites in the country capable of handling such a large-scale field test.
 
Michigan's four seasons will allow testing of the systems in all sorts of driving conditions, and Ann Arbor's unique mix of busy surface streets and freeways in a relatively compact area offers a microcosm of the sorts of roadways that could be found in a large metropolitan area. That's important, Sayer says, because if this system is to be rolled out nationally, it needs to have been tested under a variety of conditions and shown to work before policies are developed and investments are made. 
 
"We need to know (about problems) now before states and municipalities make the leap to moving in this direction," Sayer says. "They don't need to get surprised."  
 
The project brings together many disciplines across the university, including engineering and natural sciences, as well as the Medical School and the School of Public Health. One of the long-term objectives of the program is to see if vehicle communication systems reduce crashes and the severity of crashes. It will also look at sustainability issues through more efficient driving, and since public policy will also be affected, the Ford School of Public Policy will be involved. 
 
The hope is that companies involved in connected vehicle technology will want to locate in southeast Michigan because of the U-M study and the expertise it highlights, and because it comes equipped with connected vehicle infrastructure on a level few other places will have. 
 
"Companies will want to be here, because we have this wonderful 'sandbox' in which they can test future products," Sayer says.
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