Transforming the future

Thinking Highways
By Christine M. Colaner September 5, 2014 15:11

Transforming the future

Christine M. Colaner reports from a quiet Michigan suburb where, almost unbeknown to the populace, the future of driving is being completely rethought and transformed.

The revolution going on in Ann Arbor, Michigan, isn’t always palpable or obvious to residents driving to the grocery store, or taking the bus to class, or riding their bikes through downtown streets. But it’s there – a buzzing undercurrent of excitement as inroads are made in the field of vehicle automation and connected technology that could change every aspect of transportation in this city and beyond.

“We are on the cusp of a transformation of mobility on a scale we haven’t seen since the introduction of the automobile a century ago,” says Peter Sweatman, director of the Mobility Transformation Center (MTC) and University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI).


The current transportation systems that move people, goods, and services in societies worldwide continue to pose challenges. The urgency is growing to reduce crashes, relieve the congestion of urban centers, cut back on carbon emissions and pollution, conserve resources, and maximize transportation accessibility to growing populations.

Data from UMTRI indicates that many of those improvements could be accomplished by partially or fully removing the human element from the complex tasks that are associated with driving – like sensing, monitoring, and control processing.

“With advancements in connected and automated mobility, we are resetting the objectives for our transportation system. Just being able to dramatically reduce vehicle fatalities and energy consumption would be monumental – especially with the magnitude that would be possible,” says Sweatman. “But this type of transportation transformation would also result in far less traffic congestion, new opportunities for transportation start-ups, diminishing freight transportation costs, and a multitude of other benefits. Even something as simple as reducing the amount of land devoted to parking cars could change our infrastructure in a fundamental way.”

Certainly a host of advances have already been made in such areas as multimodal transportation, traffic performance management, fractional vehicle use, as well as in new fuels, novel engine design, alternative energy sources, and advanced materials. These gains offer great promise to address the challenges and, in the process, to truly revolutionize mobility in societies worldwide. But individually, none of these advances will have the impact needed to make a wholesale change in transportation; looking at the mobility system as a whole is necessary to make great leap in progress. Up until now, very little work has been done on how to integrate the technical, economic, social, and policy considerations to create a viable mobility system that meets the dynamic needs of a changing society.


The University of Michigan created the Mobility Transformation Center (MTC) to pull together the diverse expertise and resources required to realize the unprecedented potential of this emerging technology. The MTC is currently leading the revolution in mobility by developing the foundations for a commercially viable system of connected and automated vehicles, culminating in the implementation of a working system of connected and automated vehicles in Ann Arbor by 2021.

The three aspects of the MTC that make it unique are also key to its success in this initiative: partners, testing and deployment and an interdisciplinary approach.

Realizing the promise of connected and automated vehicles requires the vision, commitment, and cooperation of a wide range of expertise and interests. The MTC is essentially a public-private partnership that integrates the broad resources necessary for such an enormous undertaking.

Within the University of Michigan (UM) alone, UMTRI, the School of Information, UM Energy Institute, the School of Business, the Law School, the School of Public Policy, the College of Engineering, the Medical School, and the College of Architecture and Urban Planning are just some of the important contributors. But the partnerships also extend well beyond the UM to national, state, and local governments; to industry sectors like telecommunications, freight transport, big-data management, public transportation, as well as OEMs and tier-one suppliers; and to organizations and other academic institutions that also have a stake in the area of automated and connected vehicles.

These select partners and the MTC will work together to envision the future, developing an integrated perspective on the direction of the emerging mobility ecosystem.

“The potential of this technology is truly transformative, opening up broad opportunities in the emerging marketplace. Partnering with a select group of visionary companies from a range of sectors that will play a role in shaping the future – as well as with government at all levels – is critical if we are to realize that promise,” notes Sweatman.

Testing and Deployments
“One of the major challenges ahead is to ensure that vehicles can perform safelyand reliably in a complex urban setting,” explains Sweatman. “Testing a workable system of such technologies in a realistic off-road environment is an essential step before a significant number of vehicles can be safely implemented on actual roadways.”

The MTC’s newly constructed US$6.5 million test facility occupies over 30 acres at the UM’s North Campus Research Complex. It’s a unique test environment that includes approximately three lane-miles of roads with intersections, traffic signs and signals, sidewalks, benches, simulated buildings, street lights and obstacles such as construction barriers.

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The newly constructed facility at the UM’s North Campus Research Complex provides a unique test environment

In August of 2012, the world’s largest on-roadway test of the potential of connected- vehicle technology was launched – the Connected Vehicle Safety Pilot Model Deployment. Sponsored by the US Department of Transportation, the US$31 million program equipped nearly 3,000 private cars, trucks, and buses to allow wireless communication with each other and with devices in the roadway infrastructure of northeast Ann Arbor.  This test environment uses the 5.9 GHz dedicated short-range communication (DSRC) spectrum reserved by the Federal Communications Commission for transportation-safety applications. The communication platform and application set, along with security and privacy protocols used in the deployment, were developed by the USDOT through the Michigan-based auto industry consortium, CAMP (Collision Avoidance Metrics Partnership).

Data on vehicles’ wireless communication, accumulated at the rate of 10 times per second, has allowed researchers to test connected-vehicle operations in real-world conditions. This resulting database created by UMTRI has been used by the USDOT to determine the large-scale safety potential for the connected-vehicle technology as standard equipment for passenger cars in the US. The test environment also created opportunities for all industry stakeholders to evaluate possible approaches to the market for this technology. Another offshoot was the prospect of evaluating the implications of the technology for traffic efficiency, energy efficiency, and environmental benefits.

Building on this experience, the MTC is currently expanding the deployment to embrace the full range of traffic situations in the greater Ann Arbor area. The expansion will include up to 9000 equipped vehicles, including private cars, trucks, buses, motorcycles, bicycles, and even links with pedestrians. The test area will be increased to 27 square miles of coverage, including surrounding highways as well as city and suburban streets. The infrastructure to be equipped includes approximately 45 intersections, three curve-related sites, and 12 freeway sites.

MTC is also working closely with the Michigan Department of Transportation and industry partners to develop a third deployment – one that will extend across much of southeastern Michigan to address real-world transportation problems in this region and eclipse the scope of all previous deployments. As many as 20,000 vehicles will be involved, most of them company-owned, employee-driven fleet vehicles. The deployment involves up to 500 infrastructure nodes in the test environment and up to 5000 safety devices on the test vehicles.

Ultimately, this multiyear project will explore increasing levels of automation, and will result in a connected, automated, and shared transportation deployment of up to 2000 vehicles that provides an on-demand mobility service in Ann Arbor.

Other activities under way in the region are also laying the foundation for the new mobility system. For example, the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) is installing unique “smart” infrastructure across Southeastern Michigan. And the region’s industrial powerhouse of automotive R&D is deeply engaged in automating vehicles for use by consumers and businesses.

Interdisciplinary Approach
The work at MTC explicitly embraces the fact that the challenges in developing a viable working system of connected and automated vehicles are not just technical. The MTC draws on the broad expertise of UM and its partners to address the host of interrelated legal, political, social, regulatory, economic, urban-planning, and business issues necessary to devise and implement practical systems that take advantage of emerging technologies.

“It is a culture of unprecedented interdisciplinary cooperation in the area of mobility,” says Sweatman proudly.

To that end, four cross-cutting themes have been integrated into all three planned deployments – technology, risk management, customer value, and societal impact – to ensure that research does not get too narrowly focused. Each theme has its own specific aims and incorporates the appropriate resources. For example, technology needs to address the more obvious factors of connectivity, automation, vehicle design, infrastructure design, ITS interoperability, human factors, and standards. But risk management also needs to be considered, as cybersecurity and regulatory and legal issues become real challenges in a new framework. Customer value also becomes an important factor to determine how people will view safety, congestion reduction, vehicle sharing, smart parking, accessibility – even the business model and process. Finally, the societal impact can’t be ignored and must address important issues like public policy and urban planning issues.


The University of Michigan students and faculty also have a role to play in accelerating MTCs progress of future innovations.

MTC will provide unparalleled opportunities for students who will go on to be innovators in the emergence of 21st -century mobility systems. Talented people who can design and implement a system that relies on these new technologies require expertise that spans a broad spectrum of disciplines, ranging from engineering and information science to business and law.  The MTC plans to support faculty members in developing courses to complement MTC’s mission and research. In addition, the MTC plans to engage a student team of 50 to participate in MTC research.

A number of faculty projects have also been selected to receive funding under the auspices of MTC, which will further progress in the area of automated vehicles.

Notable projects include mobile datamining for intelligent transportation, simulating vehicle automation for evaluation of driver behavior and performance, and improving the fuel economy of heavy-duty vehicles using vehicle-to-vehicle communication, to name just a few.


Michigan has long been the global center of the automotive industry.  This transformation in mobility is building on this legacy, forging a new era of leadership and innovation.  MTC is enabling enormous economic and technological opportunities throughout southeast Michigan.

“A true transformation is happening,” says Sweatman. “The real beneficiaries of course will be customers, the users of this transformed system.This common purpose is bringing rapid advancements.  Never before have we seen this level of cooperation and collaboration.”


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Thinking Highways
By Christine M. Colaner September 5, 2014 15:11