CONNECTED VEHICLES: A grand experiment

May 8, 2013

The University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI), in partnership with the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), is conducting the largest-ever road test of connected vehicle crash-avoidance technology.


The University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI), in partnership with the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), is conducting the largest-ever road test of connected vehicle crash-avoidance technology.

During the year-long Connected Vehicle Safety Pilot Model Deployment project, data will be collected from nearly 3,000 cars, trucks and buses that are equipped with dedicated, short-range wireless communications. The “connected” Wi-Fi technology enables them to “talk” to each other and infrastructure (such as traffic signals, work-zone equipment or pavement sensors) in real time.

Sensors save lives

The significance of the Safety Pilot Model Deployment will not be determined until late 2013, but the potential benefits of these technologies could be dramatic. According to the Centers for Disease Control, vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of 4 and 35 years. About 32,000 people are killed on U.S. roads every year. Crashes are a huge public health issue, costing billions of dollars and exacting tremendous tolls on families who lose loved ones or face the tragedy of caring for those injured in nonfatal crashes. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has estimated that these technologies could help prevent 80% of all crash scenarios involving unimpaired drivers.

The advanced vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) technology being tested offers the most promising, near-term opportunities for reducing crashes and improving traffic flow. These technologies are giving vehicles “premonition” because they enable them to sense things going on around the vehicle that the driver may not be aware of. This is a major paradigm shift from the past, where the U.S. DOT has focused on helping people survive crashes. Model deployment officials are hoping to prove how connected-vehicle safety can help people avoid crashes. Data from the pilot will inform the 2013 NHTSA decision on vehicle communications for safety, as well as vehicle manufacturer safety measures going forward.

Getting rolling

The model deployment involves installation of dedicated, short-range communications (DSRC) devices to send and receive data in approximately 2,800 cars, trucks and buses, as well as at 29 infrastructure locations along 73 lane-miles of roadway in northeast Ann Arbor. DSRC equipment has been installed at 21 signalized intersections, three curve locations and five freeway sites. A mix of freeways and city streets were selected to capture the majority of participating drivers during their daily commutes. The goal is to maximize the number of vehicle interactions to provide enough data for researchers to evaluate the technology’s effectiveness on different road types and driving conditions.

The model deployment is actually in the second phase of U.S. DOT’s Connected Vehicle Safety Pilot, a major research initiative managed by NHTSA and the Research and Innovative Technologies Administration (RITA) Intelligent Transportation Systems Joint Program Office. In the first phase of the pilot, U.S. DOT conducted a series of driver-acceptance clinics. The data from those clinics revealed that an overwhelming majority of drivers (nine out of 10) who have experienced V2V technology have a highly favorable opinion of its safety benefits and would like to have V2V safety features on their personal vehicles.

Before the pilot kicked off in August 2012, more than 2,800 everyday drivers were recruited through the University of Michigan hospital system and from the greater Ann Arbor area. What is unique about this project is that it involves different types of vehicles driven on city streets and rural highways under all weather conditions. A key component of the safety pilot will be looking at the human-machine interface—the interactions between the driver and the vehicle. With so many vehicles equipped with these technologies, it will provide a great stage for determining if the technologies will overwhelm or distract the driver.

Talking tech

Four types of devices are being used in the pilot: integrated safety devices (ISD), aftermarket safety devices (ASD), retrofit safety devices (RSD) and vehicle-awareness devices (VAD). Each of these devices broadcasts a basic safety message 10 times per second, forming the data stream that other vehicles and infrastructure use to determine when a potential conflict exists. Typical V2V conflicts may include one vehicle traveling too close in a blind spot or veering too close from an adjacent lane. Examples of V2I conflicts include warnings if a vehicle is traveling too fast to safely navigate a curve or railroad crossing alerts that warn vehicles of approaching trains. The pilot even includes a V2I application that alerts the driver of turning transit vehicles if a pedestrian has pushed the crosswalk button at an upcoming intersection.

A lot of people think of this technology as “talking cars,” like in the old television show “Knight Rider,” but it is not really the same. It is more like giving your vehicle 360° awareness of its surroundings and giving the drivers the information they need to react quickly and make good driving decisions. Once vehicles are connected to each other and the infrastructure, there are significant opportunities for other types of applications down the road that are really dramatic, including mobility applications like corridor management, commercial applications like dynamic route guidance or asset management. For example, if there is a bunch of applications of automatic braking systems (ABS) in a particular area, that may be an indication that there is a slick spot in that area and that road crews need to get out and address the situation.

This project is the culmination of years of research and development, not only in technical areas, but also in legal and policy areas critical for user acceptance. For example, considerable human-factors research has been conducted to make sure that driver warnings and information will not be a distraction and that such information will be presented to the driver only when it is needed. Privacy and data security and other topics that have been given a lot of attention and safeguards are being rolled out as part of the model deployment.

A variety of vehicles

The safety pilot includes a rich mix of vehicles—cars, trucks, local fleet trucks, university fleet trucks and transit buses—all equipped with various device types that will provide more data for evaluation.

Some participants qualified to drive a new vehicle, equipped with an ISD, for six months. Installed by the manufacturer, these devices integrate directly with the vehicle’s computers. In addition to emitting and receiving the basic safety message, vehicles with integrated devices can further communicate data on speed, acceleration and deceleration, turning, wiper activity and more.

Most participants are driving their own vehicles, buses or fleet trucks that have been equipped with DSRC devices. The majority of model deployment vehicles will be equipped with VADs, which are the simplest of the devices. VADs focus only on emitting the basic safety message. They do not receive messages from other vehicles. The large number of VAD-equipped vehicles will provide the penetration rate necessary to generate vast amounts of data for evaluation of the technology.

Vehicles equipped with ASDs are capable of sending and receiving safety messages via a DSRC wireless communications link. The device has a driver interface, runs V2V and V2I safety applications and issues audible or visual warnings and/or alerts to the driver of the vehicle. This option is being examined as a means of increasing user adoption, and hence benefits, especially in the existing U.S. fleet of more than 250 million vehicles.

RSDs have been installed on a limited number of trucks and buses for the model deployment. Unlike ASDs, this type of device is connected to the vehicle’s data bus and can provide highly accurate information from in-vehicle sensors. An RSD includes a driver interface, can both broadcast and receive basic safety messages and can process the content of received messages to provide warnings and/or alerts to the driver.

At the end of the year-long test period, data captured from both onboard equipment and roadside equipment during the model deployment will be sent to U.S. DOT’s John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center, where it will be used to determine how to further advance the technology and tweak the applications.

While the selection of the deployment site was made through a competitive process, Ann Arbor seems to be the natural choice for the pilot. In addition to being home to the University of Michigan and UMTRI, the Michigan Department of Transportation and the city of Ann Arbor are among the most advanced in the country when it comes to safety and intelligent transportation systems. Also, the Michigan DOT has been on the forefront of V2V and V2I technology.

Proximity to Detroit’s automakers and the largest automotive research community in the U.S. is another advantage of locating the Safety Pilot Model Deployment in Ann Arbor. Most of the world’s automakers and suppliers have research and manufacturing facilities in the region. Plus, UMTRI is one of the premier transportation research centers in the world, and the safety pilot is a testament to that distinction.

The partnership among the University of Michigan, UMTRI, government agencies—including the U.S. DOT, the Michigan DOT and the city of Ann Arbor—area transit agencies, the Michigan Economic Development Corp., and the companies supporting the safety pilot has been a model for success based on collaboration and technical excellence. The parties work through issues in real time and come up with innovative solutions through collaboration and communication.

Eight automakers from around the world have been working collaboratively over the past decade in V2V and V2I research through a consortium known as the Crash Avoidance Metrics Partnership (CAMP). Through the consortium, they have worked to set standards and develop driver interfaces. They have invested a lot of brain power and money into development of these technologies to make sure they work and are safe, secure and private. They are as committed to V2V and V2I technology as the U.S. DOT.

The automotive industry has been working on these technologies and the ultimate development of automated highways since the federal government mandated it in the 1991 Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA). ISTEA was beneficial in fostering collaboration. Through the years, we have discovered that V2V and V2I communications could be achieved with a lot less equipment that is more efficient and faster.

Getting to zero

Those of us who have been involved in transportation planning and safety for decades envision a future of driverless cars. In the more immediate future, we will have connected vehicles that offer improvements in situational awareness. The next step would be to assist the driver when those circumstances arise, as in automated braking. There may be a time when infrastructure like street signs will not be necessary because signs will be displayed electronically within your car. Major intersections with high crash rates could have intersection collision warning and avoidance technologies. The combination of connectivity and automation could help push traffic crash rates and fatalities to even lower levels.

The ultimate goal of course is getting to zero road deaths, a feat that will require application of the four E’s: engineering, enforcement, education and emergency management. The 32,000 annual fatalities caused by vehicle crashes represents a dramatic decrease over what fatalities were a decade ago. The decrease can be attributed to seatbelt use, information about drunken driving and improvements like airbags, ABS and other safety features that car manufacturers offer to protect occupants.

However, achieving zero road deaths will require a collaborative effort by the auto industry, enforcement community, health care community, insurance companies, state and local road agencies and political decision makers to craft a comprehensive strategy. The technologies being tested in Ann Arbor today are working toward that end.

For more information about the model deployment, visit www?

About The Author: Barbaresso is vice president of intelligent transportation systems in HNTB Corp.’s infrastructure division in Detroit.

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