Connected Cars Take to Michigan to Reshape the Driving World
By LOU FANCHER
A citizen army of everyday drivers are taking to talking cars, buses and trucks to assemble a torrent of information about how drivers behave and what situations they encounter when behind the wheel. It’s the government-backed study of the connected car, and it’s happening on the tree-lined streets of Ann Arbor, Michigan beginning today.
The mountain of resulting data will be used by the United States Department of Transportation to estimate the safety benefits of the connected car and its future implementations, while the transportation industry will gain access to vital information for developing safe, mobile, and environmentally sound applications using wireless communication technologies.
Deployed as the one-year, real-world portion of the Connected Vehicle Safety Pilot Program run by the DOT, the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI) won the $14.9 million contract in a competitive wrestling match to see which entity would be able to put cars and infrastructure to the test in the first study of its kind.
“My understanding is that three locations received site visits,” says Project Leader James Sayer. “We’ve done studies evaluating new technologies like adaptive cruise control, lane departure and curve speed warnings, all with lay people…. How we were going to recruit people was an important factor.”
UMTRI’s metric for enlisting participants was simple: Find drivers who travel with high frequency through the model deployment area.
So who’s that?
Soccer moms and baseball dads; parents of children who attend the high school, middle school and four elementary schools located within the study area; and employees of the university’s hospitals and schools. The results are an intoxicating mixture for someone like Sayer, who refers to “traffic jams” as “community involvement.”
What 300 of the good people of Ann Arbor will do between August of 2012 and 2013 is blaze about in connected vehicles, silently and wirelessly transmitting information to transponders located on the state and city’s traffic infrastructure equipment.
Using Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC) signals that transmit at 5.9 gigahertz and cover a 300-meter range, an additional fleet of Aftermarket Safety Device-enhanced vehicles — buses and trucks — will not only chatter, but listen. The icing on the vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure cakes is sweetened by 64 vehicles with integrated safety systems supplied by eight manufacturers, including General Motors and Ford.
All told, 2,836 vehicles are involved in the study, which aims to collect a paralyzing amount of data (imagine a stack of DVDs piled 26 miles high) that will be passed to the DOT for analysis.
“From the integrated and aftermarket cars, we’re collecting location, speed, direction, driver and surrounding terrain videos, throttle, brake, and steering wheel angle data,” Sayer says.
In real-world deployment, the data — collected 10 times a second and amassing at a rate far higher than the speed limit — is broadcast, but not collected.
“How could someone possibly compile all these signals?” Sayer asks.
The answer is DAS. A data acquisition system much like an airplane’s black box. Two such devices, one developed by UMTRI and another, created by Virginia Tech, will be placed in 100 of the ASD cars and all of the integrated vehicles.
“You need DSRC’s low latency, or faster signal, for situations where seconds, not minutes, count,” Sayer explains. “With DAS, we’ll know what precipitates a situation and how the driver responds.”
The cool factor, already lurking in the sheer number of cars voyaging on real roads with real drivers (previous studies have included less vehicles and staged driving scenarios) is made downright freeze-your-socks-off-awesome by infrastructure gizmos like the Prototype Solar Cellular Roadside Equipment, which transmits data via cellular modem rather than fiber optics and SPaT-Enabled traffic signals that detect not just how many cars pass, but how many drivers are sitting at a red light.
And to please the green-minded driver, Sayer says the study findings may spawn environmental improvements.
“If you can prevent crashes, you’ll prevent backups. If you prevent backups, you prevent cars idling. You’ll get advance, real-time notice of alternative routes. And then there’s the potential to create green waves,” Sayer adds, allowing the alluring phrase to dangle.
But it’s just SPaT, swooping in like a superhero to free red-light haters from fuel-burning bondage and causing the streets of Ann Arbor (and other locations, when the DOT’s connected vehicle dreams are realized) to swell with safe, economic, community-involved, free-flowing traffic. And that information is set to completely reshape the way we drive and how we interact with our roads.