Skip to main content

This Sim City Is Exploring the Future of Auto Transport

October 20, 2014
Though fully functional self-driving vehicles are considered another 10 years or so away from commercial viability, industry leaders are already preparing for what will surely revolutionize transportation as we know it, investing millions into research and development.

Leaders from the private and public sector are collaborating to innovate fully integrated vehicles, infrastructure, infotainment systems and mobile applications. A common interest in developing autonomous transportation has brought together major automakers — including Ford, General Motors and Toyota — as well as technology innovators such as Bosch, Econolite, Verizon and Xerox in a unique partnership with the University of Michigan’s Mobility Transformation Center.

The center has created a simulated urban environment built out with buildings, tunnels and bridges. The five-mile testing facility, located on 32 acres of U-M’s North Campus Research Complex in Ann Arbor, has some 30 intersections and a variety of lane configurations and road surfaces.

While the facility is slated to be up and running by the spring, the ultimate plan is to install “smart” infrastructure for 20,000 connected vehicles across southeastern Michigan by 2021.

“We are on the threshold of a transformation in mobility that the world hasn’t seen since the introduction of the automobile a century ago,” says Peter Sweatman, director of University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute.

The environment, designed and built in cooperation with Michigan Department of Transportation, features a range of different conditions drivers and pedestrians might encounter in their day-to-day lives.

“What were trying to do is anticipate the most demanding conditions for vehicles relying on sensors and conditions to accelerate the development of these connected, automated systems,” Sweatman told Ideas Lab.

Each industry partner is contributing $1 million over the course of the three years toward the $6.4 million cost of the program, which is being co-funded by the university’s College of Engineering, Office of Research and Office of the Provost.

“Our goal is nothing less than a revolution in how people and goods move worldwide,” says David Amoriell, the chief operating officer, government and transportation sector, at Xerox.

Ken Mihalyov, chief innovation officer of Xerox’s government and transportation sector, says the collaboration is unique because “it connects us with some people we might not normally engage with.”

Xerox is bringing its expertise in transactional and data management with its EZ-Pass program. In return, the company hopes to improve its understanding of how vehicles communicate data with parking infrastructure and mobile applications, he says.

“We see these as opportunities to validate our systems and get the feedback of credible organizations,” Mihalyov told Ideas Lab.

Econolite will deploy a range of intelligent transportation systems technologies at intersections around the test facility, including radar and video vehicle detection and intersection controllers that use connected vehicles as sources of data.

While some automakers are ahead of the curve by offering vehicles with aspects of vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V), technology, it will probably take another five years at least for the deployment of vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2X), says Persephone Oliver, vice president of marketing at Econolite Group.

“In the end, we hope to see the partnerships grow so that together, we can take the technology to the broader market so that transportation agencies worldwide can benefit from the findings of this consortium,“ she says.

Connected vehicles are touted for their safety benefits. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has estimated that connecting all of the nation’s vehicles could reduce non-alcohol-related traffic accidents by as much as 80 percent, preventing roughly 5.1 million accidents a year and saving 18,000 lives.

Whether traffic accidents will be reduced this drastically remains to be seen. Either way, the widespread use of autonomous vehicles is coming: IHS Automotive estimates that there will be an estimated 54 million self-driving cars in use globally by 2035. Nearly all cars on the roads will be autonomous by 2050, the research group predicts.

At this point, the industry partners of have a three-year commitment to the project, but the Mobility Transformation Center will be used for connected vehicle R&D for at least the next eight years.

“We see the convergence between connectivity and various types of automation to be transformational,” Sweatman said. ”We want to be influential in developing safe and effective standards for driverless vehicles, and there’s a lot of work to be done there.”

Top image: Courtesy of the University of Michigan’s Mobility Transformation Center