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Smart Cars Need Smart Roads

By Paul Eisenstein 

The nation’s first smart vehicle corridor is set to link downtown Detroit and Ann Arbor. A joint effort pairing the State of Michigan, Ford, Google parent Alphabet, Cavnue and AECOM, it will create dedicated lanes for the use of CAV, or “Connected and Autonomous Vehicles.”  

Stations could be added along the way where autonomous vehicles – such as the fully driverless Origin shuttle being developed by General Motors’ Cruise subsidiary – pick up and drop off passengers.  

“This partnership will advance transportation in a way that’s sustainable, smarter and safer for generations to come in Michigan,” said Jennifer Aument, AECOM’s global transportation chief executive. 

The transportation world will undergo a dramatic transformation this decade. President Joe Biden wants half of all new vehicles to be battery-powered by 2030. Autonomous and fully driverless vehicles could become commonplace by then. And by decade’s end, most vehicles are expected to be able to “talk” to one another, passing information about things like traffic and weather conditions.  

The challenge will be to turn concept into reality, and Southeast Michigan’s CAV pilot will provide invaluable insight into how to make that happen. The final layout is still being determined but it is expected to “link key destinations including the University of Michigan, Detroit Metropolitan Airport, and Michigan Central Station,” according to the Michigan Department of Transportation. 

While focusing on CAV, it may be possible to test out other emerging technologies at some point. Setting up a nationwide charging network is seen as essential to building demand for battery-electric vehicles.  

But Denso is one of several companies hoping to eliminate the need to plug in while traveling. 

Instead, its dynamic wireless power transfer system uses inductive charging – a large-scale version of the technology widely used for smartphones.  

“The underlying mechanism is very simple,” said Denso Electrification System Engineer Keisuke Tani. “The charging devices are embedded in the road, and they provide electricity to vehicles when they pass over or halt on the devices.”  

A pilot program launched near Stockholm, Sweden takes an alternative approach. It requires EVs to have a pickup to tap electrically charged rails in the road, much like slot cars. Meanwhile, U.S. start-up Solar Roadways is developing a system that would, as its name suggests, build solar panels right into the pavement. The power they generate could be pushed into the grid or charge vehicles en route.  

Not all these pilot efforts will come to fruition, but they underscore the need to come up with creative solutions to support the upcoming revolution in transportation.  

Paul Eisenstein is publisher and editor-in-chief of automotive news site TheDetroitBureau.com.