The University of Michigan is becoming a leader in the development of automated and networked vehicles. The university in Ann Arbor, Michigan has launched multiple experiments incorporating sensors and mapping technology as part of their effort to advance driverless vehicle research.

In 2012, the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI) partnered with the U.S. Department of Transportation to launch the Safety Pilot Model Deployment, one of the country’s largest street-level connected vehicle experiments. To date, the vehicles of nearly 3,000 Ann Arbor residents have been equipped with sensors that wirelessly send and receive communications. The sensors allow networked vehicles to communicate with each other, while also interacting with the corresponding 73-mile stretch of lanes. In the coming years, the UMTRI plans to triple the number of experimental vehicles, ensuring that roughly 10 percent of Ann Arbor’s population uses the technology over an additional 27 square miles of equipped infrastructure.

“The university’s researchers are processing the trillions of bytes of data collected by the vehicle’s sensors, from which they can build a 3D model of the environment around the vehicle,” said Francine Romine, Director of Marketing and Communications at the UMTRI. “The goal is to lay the foundations of a commercially viable system of connected and automated vehicles, vehicles that communicate wirelessly with one another and with infrastructure to warn of potential hazards and allow increasing automation of vehicle functions.”

To assist in their research efforts, the University of Michigan recently announced plans to construct the Michigan Mobility Transformation Facility, which will allow researchers to safely test automated and networked vehicles in a controlled environment. The 32-acre facility will feature a fully-equipped city center complete with building façades, stop signs, streetlights, construction barrels, a railroad crossing and, eventually, robotic pedestrians. In addition, the networked vehicles will have access to a four-lane highway where they can safely practice entering and exiting the freeway.

“The University of Michigan, under the direction of CoE faculty members Ryan Eustice and Edwin Olson, is leading in the development of sensor-based technologies,” Romine said. “The sensors aid in the logic and virtual decision making necessary to help the vehicle understand its physical surroundings on the road.”

Researchers from U-M’s College of Engineering are currently working with Ford Motor Company to develop the sensors and mapping technology for the automated Ford Fusion Hybrid test vehicle. Ford will be developing unique components that will allow vehicles to operate at increased levels of automation.

In a press release, Edwin Olson, assistant professor of computer science and engineering at U-M said, “We will actually be writing code for the test facility. We’ll be able to trigger tricky traffic signal timings, or a pedestrian stepping into the intersection at just the wrong time, for example.”

Similar to U-M’s Safety Pilot vehicles, these cars will be connected to a wireless network, allowing them to communicate with their surroundings. Researchers hope the testing they conduct in the new facility will allow them to assess how automated vehicles can adapt and perform in a multifaceted urban environment.

“The type of testing we’re talking about doing—it’s not possible to do today in the university infrastructure,” said Ryan Eustice, associate professor of naval architecture and marine engineering at U-M. “Every time a vehicle comes around the loop, it can hit something unusual. That will give us a leg up on getting these vehicles mature and robust and safe.”

The $6.5 million facility will be operated by the Michigan Mobility Transformation Center (MTC), with funding provided by the university, UMTRI, U-M’s College of Engineering, the Energy Institute, as well as the Michigan Department of Transportation. In addition, industry leaders such as Ford, GM, Econolite, Bosch, Toyota and Xerox have joined the center’s Leadership Circle, each committing $1 million toward the project over the next three years.

The Mobility Transformation Center held a groundbreaking ceremony in May and, with construction under way, they plan to open the facility on U-M’s North Campus this fall. The MTC hopes the facility can act as a model for the automated system they plan to enable in Ann Arbor by the year 2021. If approved, this connected system could considerably enhance city and highway safety measures by reducing the number of accidents and improving traffic flow, while reducing pollution emissions and energy consumption.

“Vehicles emit CO2 and consume fuel while accelerating, decelerating and idling,” Romine said. “Incorporating V2X can provide real time traffic and infrastructure information that will reduce idle times, congestion etc.”