Ann Arbor: Birthplace of the Ultimate Mobile Device?
"One day your car may speed along an electric super-highway, its speed and steering automatically controlled by electronic devices."
-from a 1957 ad by America's Independent Electric Light and Power Companies
The coolest mobile device in the world is being developed in Michigan. Researchers at the University of Michigan, fueled by federal funds and automotive partnerships, are creating the knowledge needed to achieve connectivity and automation in vehicle mobility.
The university's Transportation Research Institute has contributed to transportation research in various ways, most recently through a Safety Pilot Model Deployment Study
testing connective technology between vehicles on Ann Arbor streets. Last year, the university also established the Center for Mobility Transformation
, a multidisciplinary research facility focused on automated vehicles.
The U-M Board of Regents late last year approved a $6.5 million appropriation to establish a 30-acre North Campus test facility designed like a detailed urban streetscape. The testing center will include realistic pavement and crosswalk markings to test how vehicles respond to different types of environments before self-driving cars enter general traffic conditions. Construction is expected to begin in the spring, and the center should be ready for operation by September when the World Congress
of the Intelligent Transport Systems will hold its 2014 meeting in Detroit. Gov. Snyder signed legislation in December allowing automated cars on Michigan roads.
As automakers tout their evolving autonomous vehicles, prompting speculation about how soon cars will be driving themselves, much of the incremental research leading to driverless, connected, and shared vehicles is occurring at the U-M and the research facilities of its affiliated car companies in the region.
The U-M Safety Pilot study involves 2,800 cars, trucks, and buses on Ann Arbor streets. These vehicles, driven by human beings, have wireless devices that communicate information to alert drivers to risks, to communicate with other adjacent vehicles, and with similar devices located at intersections, curves, and freeways.
The U.S. Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released a statement on Feb. 3 that it plans to enable vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication technology for light vehicles, as a result of the Ann Arbor research. This technology will improve safety by allowing vehicles to avoid crashes by exchanging basic safety data. V2V crash avoidance has "game-changing" potential to significantly reduce crashes, injuries, and ultimately fatalities, according to David Friedman, NHTSA acting administrator.
"Decades from now, it's likely we'll look back at this time period as one in which the historical arc of transportation safety considerably changed for the better, similar to the introduction of standards for seat belts, airbags, and electronic stability control technology."
The Michigan Mobility Transformation Center is focused on creating a convergence of innovative ideas, while addressing public policy issues to create a "mobility system." As a university spokesperson explained, "We're working with industry and government to get us to a world of connected and automated transportation technology." The task of integrating multiple factors -- public policy, urban planning, and consumer behavior -- is complex.
Eventually, the center will expand its connectivity research to a 27-square mile area of Ann Arbor, involving 9,000 vehicles, then eventually extend the study beyond Ann Arbor streets to freeways in Southeast Michigan, equipping 20,000 vehicles.
"Integrating the most promising approaches to mobility into a coordinated system could reduce motor vehicle fatalities and injuries as well as energy consumption and carbon emissions by as much as a factor of 10," according to Peter Sweatman, UMTRI director. "We also estimate that freight transportation costs could be cut by a factor of three, and the need for parking could go down by a factor of three."
An UMTRI spokesperson emphasizes that this is not just about creating automated vehicles, it's about creating systems that allow for improved mobility.
The work under way leading to connected and automated cars is nothing short of "a revolution that will transform mobility worldwide," according to the university -- just as the Henry Ford's idea for an assembly line transformed manufacturing 100 years ago.
Michigan's future may not lie in automobile manufacturing, but many believe will remain its brain center. That nexus is Washtenaw County, and Ann Arbor in particular. Toyota Motor Company
recognized this and established its North American Research Center in Ann Arbor Township. Hyunda-Kia
also has a research and development center in Superior Township. Auto companies have a presence here as well.
Advances in vehicle automation have been occurring for some time, some prompted by convenience, cruise control, and others by safety, air bags. Ford Motor Company says that it is creating "foundation blocks" for gradual implementation of driver-directed vehicle automation, which is different from "driverless cars."
Ford, which has worked with U-M researchers on its autonomous vehicle projects, recently announced research involving the Ford Fusion Hybrid, which "builds on driver-in-control studies" using a driving simulator. Ford researchers are examining "how to merge the capabilities of human and automated drivers to create a seamless, integrated experience," according to a December, 2013, Ford news release. "Developing the necessary infrastructure to support a sustainable transportation ecosystem will require the collaboration of many partners across multiple industries. State Farm and the University of Michigan's robotics and automation research team are critical to creating the visionary research project."
The U-M component of the research is directed by Ryan Eustice and Edwin Olson, experts in sensor-based technologies. Using the information detected by the car's sensors, a 3D model of the environment around the vehicle is created, allowing the driver to make "appropriate and safe driving decisions."
According to Ford, eventually "vehicles will have fully autonomous navigation and parking. They will communicate with each other and the world around them, and become one element of a fully integrated transportation ecosystem. ... he benefits include improved safety, reduced traffic congestion and the ability to achieve major environmental improvements."
Paul Mascarenas, chief technical officer and vice president of Research and Innovation, referenced Ford's "Blueprint for Mobility," which "aligns the desired outcomes of our work in automated functionality with the democratization of driver-assist technology." Using terms like "automated functionality" and "democratization of driver-assist technology" in explaining the company's current research. Cars will still be driven by human beings.
Lifestyle demands -- particularly "distracted driving" caused by society's obsession with mobile devices -- are shifting the driving experience. While safety advocates try to persuade drivers to curb their mobile habits, the automated future will facilitate it.
"Automated driving has already begun...It's not a question of whether we will bring the Internet into cars; it is only a question of how and how fast," said Elmar Degenhart, CEO of the auto supplier, Continental
at the 2014 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. "We are convinced that together with the electrication of vehicles that we are on the verge to dramatic change when talking about the automotive environment." By that, he's referring to advanced vehicle sensors, automotive apps, smart phones that open cars, connected massage seats, and integrated displays.
It's one thing to wait in line overnight for the introduction of the latest mobile device. It's yet another to anticipate lifting one's hands from the steering wheel and entrusting your life to your car. Will consumers accept this? Will the libertarian strain in society allow a fully automated vehicle to control their speed and otherwise protect their safety?
Laura Sky Brown, executive editor of the Ann Arbor-based blog "Jean Knows Car
s," questions whether she's ready Ford's "fully automated driving."
"I'm not so sure about ‘fully automated,'" she says, "but I wasn't so sure about microwave ovens or cell phones, either, and now I use them both regularly, so I guess I'll just sit back and watch the world change around me yet again."
All photos by Doug Coombe except Peter Sweatman and Laura Sky Brown photos