Smarter cars, smarter roads mean safer driving

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LANSING — Roads that communicate with cars and cars that more effectively communicate with their drivers and other vehicles may be well on their way to reality.

For now, it’s a steadily progressing vision of the future held by Michigan Department of Transportation Director Kirk Steudle.

That vision is helped by MDOT’s Connected Vehicles initiative, which is aimed at testing, developing and implementing so-called IntelliDrive systems to make driving safer.

Michigan is one of three states at the forefront of a broader national initiative to make smarter cars and roads, Steudle said, in part because of testing done across the state. California and Virginia also participate.

In the future, he said, “we will have vehicles smart enough to know where they are on the road and refuse to crash” because of the technologies being developed. Cars are already being built with some of those advancements integrated.

Stuedle said cars being tested are smart enough to know optimal speeds to avoid red lights and to refuse to run through those signals. That’s accomplished with wireless technologies, including specialized Wi-Fi, broadcasting information to receptors in vehicles. That information include knowing when a light is ready to change and the posted speed limit, which can then be more easily conveyed to the driver. Cars can also communicate with each other to help avoid collisions.

Applications include adjusting signal timing to help manage traffic, adjusting traffic signals for emergency vehicles’ safe passage and easing traffic jams. It can also help drivers make left turns safely.

Auto manufacturers are on board with the initiative. Carmakers across the world are working together in a Crash Avoidance Metrics Partnership. Ford, GM, Toyota, Nissan, Honda, Mercedes, Audi and Volkswagen are involved and were joined by Hyundai Kia last year.

The systems under development require cooperative technology, according to Mike Shulman, a technical leader for Ford Research and Advanced Engineering’s Active Safety Research division in Dearborn. The companies are working to create an industry standard so vehicles can communicate with each other regardless of brand.

Wireless communications are the next step forward in safety developments, Shulman said. “We’re giving the vehicle more information about the world around it.” That information can be used to warn drivers and help implement avoidance measures. One potential use could integrate knowledge of accidents or traffic jams with a car or smart phone’s GPS to help avoid delays.

Manufacturers are also exploring smart intersections, both internally and with government partners, Shulman said.

One of the major testing operations is in Oakland County, whose road commission is working with MDOT in Farmington Hills on operating a test bed on Telegraph Road between 8 Mile and 13 Mile.

Danielle Denau, a signal systems engineer for the Oakland County Road Commission, said the Telegraph Road corridor is unique among test beds because of its continuous length. “Telegraph is a really heavily traveled corridor,” she said, which makes its data more reliable to testers.

Such test facilities not only help develop technologies but keep automakers’ testing in Michigan, Steudle said.

One of MDOT’s primary objectives is to ensure that research — and the jobs that come with it — stay in the state as much as possible. Steudle estimated the potential jobs from continued research and implementation at 24,000.

He said that while testing continues, it’s time to start implementing such systems at critical points around the state. MDOT is applying for federal grants to do that and is lobbying the federal government to be the site of an upcoming model development.

The explosion in technology, especially mobile and wireless technology in the past few years, is contributing to making smarter cars a reality, Steudle said.

And Shulman said mobile technology and aftermarket components will make it easier to connect older vehicles to new systems.

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