U.S. launches smart-car project in Ann Arbor with thousands of vehicles that talk to each other

Posted on August 22, 2012

The reinvention of the automobile: U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said that’s what’s happening in Ann Arbor with the launch of the Department of Transportation’s vehicle-to-vehicle communication experiment Tuesday.

The joint project with the University of Michigan, launched with 2,800 vehicles, is part of a $25 million federal effort to increase roadway safety.

U-M’s Transportation Research Institute recruited 2,800 residents and drivers for local companies to create one of the largest smart car deployments ever conducted. Wireless communication devices are installed in volunteer vehicles and dozens of local roadside and intersection locations.The vehicle devices will audibly and visually alert drivers when safety threats approach.

“This is an experience that cannot be duplicated in any lab,” said U.S. Secretary for Transportation Ray LaHood. “We’re taking a major step forward in understanding cutting-edge technology tools that offer a real promise of making our roads safer.

Vehicles talking to vehicles: Who would have ever thunk it?” he added.

LaHood compared vehicle-to-vehicle innovation to the development of the seatbelt and the airbag.

But unlike the seatbelt and airbag, wireless technology has the ability to not only increase vehicle safety, but decrease traffic. The technology can communicate with wireless devices embedded in intersections and on roadways and warn drivers about traffic and suggest alternate routes.

“Wouldn’t it be kind of fun if your vehicle told that red light to turn green, well that’s what we’re talking about,” he said.

500 cars have already been outfitted with the technology and the others will get the devices throughout the year. Roughly 70 cars are new models from eight different auto companies and are already embedded with communication devices.

The yearlong pilot will offer researchers the opportunity to understand how effective visual and audio safety warnings are and how reliable various wireless technology devices are. Systems will be researched and their use refined, and at the end of the year, data on prevention and vehicle communications will be presented to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The DOT plans to work with researchers and industry leaders to see if a possible mandate requiring vehicle-to-vehicle communication is feasible, in terms of both technology and cost.

“No decision has been made about making a rule; we are announcing a research project that will deliver data… and then we’ll see where it takes us,” LaHood said Tuesday, later adding: “This technology has great promise. The promise really lies in will it save a lot of injuries? Will it save a lot of lives?”

What is clear is the deployment affirms the significance of southeast Michigan in the continued development of the auto industry.

It also puts a national spotlight on U-M and on Ann Arbor, which not only has thousands of volunteers participating in the study but is expecting to be a hub for vehicle and communication device manufacturers who are part of the study.

“It makes great sense that the safety pilot is happening in Michigan, after all the automotive industry is part of our DNA. The industry was born and took root here,” said Stephen Forrest, U-M vice president for research.Though U-M nabbed the federal contract to host the deployment, it competed with several schools in other regions for the project. The project’s placement in Michigan was vital in affirming the continued presence of serious and cutting-edge auto development in the state. UMTRI director Peter Sweatman called “this region the center of the auto world.”

“This is the right place” for the project, he said.

Added Forrest: “We are leading the way in many key areas of research that are literally reiniventing the automobile.”

Of the eight companies providing wireless infrastructure for the deployment, three —including Denso International of America, DGE Inc., and Auto Talks Ltd.— are either based in Michigan or have U.S. headquarters in Michigan. Additionally a handful of Detroit-area auto companies are providing 128 new vehicles with integrated wireless systems for the study.