ANN ARBOR, Mich. — At this high-tech proving ground, the roads are packed, and there's no tall fence to keep everything hidden from view.
The vehicles being tested look no different than what you find anywhere in the country on a typical day. Here, researchers at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute are studying how those vehicles can communicate with the world around them — technology they say is closer to widespread deployment than autonomous vehicles are.
To demonstrate the potential of connected vehicles, more than just a few loops of empty pavement are needed. So all 27 square miles of Ann Arbor, Mich., will become an inconspicuous, real-world test bed.
Outside the research institute's office, technicians working under a large tentlike structure move in perfect rhythm to install short-range communication devices on vehicles that belong to people who live or work in the city. The vehicles get a small box in their trunk or cargo area, one on or near the rear window and another on the trunk lid or vehicle roof.
Eventually, the institute aims to have more than 3,000 vehicles equipped with the devices. That number updates constantly, but as of press time, there were 450 such vehicles deployed.
About half of the devices in use merely transmit messages to researchers about an event the vehicle experienced. The other devices collect data while also providing visual and audible alerts to the driver, such as when a pedestrian is detected or a red-light violation occurs. The devices communicate with one another and with connected infrastructure throughout the city, allowing researchers to collect speed and positioning data to learn about participants' driving patterns and how their vehicles interact with traffic and their environment.
The $15 million project stems from a three-year study that the research institute and U.S. Department of Transportation started in 2012 to assess the effectiveness of connected-vehicle safety technology, using nearly 3,000 vehicles and 73 lane-miles of roads. The institute then expanded its existing infrastructure in 2015 to create the Ann Arbor Connected Vehicle Test Environment.
"It has taken this long for us working with the industry to get all of the specifications released and suppliers up to snuff to be deployment-ready," said Debby Bezzina, senior program manager. "It has been no easy task."
To the more than 40,000 students crisscrossing the University of Michigan's campus, the test environment they're a part of is invisible. There's no outward indication of the communication devices built into traffic signals and streetlights nor that any of the vehicles they often mindlessly cross in front of are interacting with such a network.
The roadside equipment devices are a part of a fiber network created for the 2012 pilot study. The network is continually being expanded. At press time, there was one roadside equipment device installed in one infrastructure location around the city; the goal is to get to 70 locations: three curve-speed warning sites, four crosswalks, eight freeway sites, one roundabout, five staging or testing sites and 49 intersections. These devices come from Lear Corp. and Savari, a Silicon Valley company that makes sensor hardware and software.