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The Race is On

Connected vehicle technologies are changing the future of driving

By James Amend

Page 18-19

Michigan could be a big winner in the drive to connected vehicles.

The United States Department of Transportation (USDOT) and University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI) are collaborating on a first-of-its-kind test of connected vehicle technology on the streets of Ann Arbor to gather extensive data about system operability and its effectiveness at reducing crashes.

The test puts the technology into 500 vehicles driven by everyday people during their daily routines and includes 70 different new models with embedded transmission devices from eight automakers. Full findings will come soon, but Peter Sweatman, director of the UMTRI in Ann Arbor, said early feedback from drivers has been favorable.

“Our users seem to like connected vehicles,” he said.

U-M aims to become a worldwide hub for further development of the technology. In October 2013, the university’s board of regents approved a $6.5 million investment to build a facility on the campus to simulate a dynamic urban environment.

According to UMTRI, the 30-acre facility will include roughly three miles of roadways with intersections, traffic signs and signals, sidewalks, benches, simulated buildings, street lights and obstacles such as construction barriers. It expects to complete the facility by fall of 2014.

The facility will also target the development of important international standards for connected vehicle technology, so every stakeholder involved develops cars and trucks and infrastructure to the same criteria and everyone speaks the same language.

On an even greater scale, another possible test track for the region has emerged. Developers are eyeing General Motors’ former Willow Run manufacturing plant as the site for a connected vehicle development campus that would be a world leader in testing and validating the technology.

The 330-acre site midway between Detroit and Ann Arbor fell into a trust consisting of assets GM didn’t want to retain after emerging from its 2009 bankruptcy, and the Detroit-based manufacturing facility builder Walbridge recently won rights to redevelop the land.

Once the site where Ford Motor Company built B-24 Liberator bombers for World War II, it lies adjacent to the Willow Run airport, a cargo and personal aircraft facility with protected air space. The site also boasts a network of roads, rail service, sewer and water, recent upgrades to its electricity system and easy access to interstate freeways.

“It’s exciting,” said Paul Krutko, president and CEO of Ann Arbor SPARK, an economic development agency. “This would be an entirely different kind of testing facility for the region.”

The economic impact of such a facility would be significant. SPARK research shows development of Willow Run would inject $360.4 million into Southeast Michigan’s economy, create 7,800 new jobs and generate $526 million in wages.

But Walbridge must find partners quickly to push the plan forward and beat others also hoping to put something of the same scale in their backyards.

“It’s leading the horse race right now,” said John Rakolta, chairman and CEO of Walbridge. “Urgency is the name of the game.”

The Michigan Senate voiced its support by recently passing legislation allowing connected vehicle and automated vehicle testing on public roads, one of only a handful of states to do so.

“A lot of things need to happen to make it a reality,” Krutko said of the Willow Run plan. But, he added, more action such as that by the Senate needs to happen either way to keep the region competitive in connected vehicle technology development.

“We have to get our act together, so when the opportunity presents itself we are ready to go,” he said.

The competition is fierce. Google has an automated vehicle program that has logged hundreds of miles, and along with other Silicon Valley information technology powerhouses, wants to see development continue in Northern California. Virginia Tech University and Clemson University operate major auto safety research facilities and want to lead the connected vehicle technology rush from their regions.

Outside the U.S., Toyota has its own growing facility in Japan while European automakers, suppliers and universities are also bidding for leadership.

Scott McCormick, president of the Plymouth-based Connected Vehicle Trade Association, said Southeast Michigan already carries the mantle of connected vehicle research leadership, dating back to 2004. He encourages widespread development, especially outside the U.S., because the cultural demands of the technology differ greatly around the world.

“It really boils down to what the needs of the region are,” he said. “What works in the U.S. will not necessarily work in Asia or Europe.”

Automakers and suppliers certainly have connected vehicle technology on the fast track.

Mercedes-Benz recently capped 20 years of connected vehicle research with an S500 Intelligent Drive program that logged 60 miles of automated driving in Europe. Bits and pieces of that research exist in the 2014 Mercedes S-Class for limited self-driving.

GM plans to bring to market in the next few years what it calls “Super Cruise,” which is capable of fully automatic steering, braking and lane-centering in highway driving under certain optimal conditions. Parts of that technology recently debuted on the 2014 Cadillac SRX including items such as automatic braking in emergency situations and full-speedrange adaptive cruise control that can slow the car to a stop if the traffic in front of it brakes.

Nissan’s Advanced Drive-Assist Program led to an autonomous vehicle recently taking to the roadways in Japan for research purposes. In the U.S., a portion of that technology exists on Nissan’s 2014 Infiniti Q50 and automatically nudges the luxury sedan back into the center of its lane if the driver drifts too far right or left.

At the Los Angeles auto show in November 2013, Ford unveiled the Ford Edge Concept, which features a push-button and a remotely operated parking feature drivers can use inside or outside of the vehicle. It advances a similar feature already available on Ford products, but also adds obstacle avoidance where the Edge Concept will alert a driver to an obstacle, and if action is not taken, the car will steer and brake automatically.

The technologies are the precursor to automated driving, said Raj Nair, group vice president of Ford Global Product Development.

“The rate of change in vehicle technology right now is unprecedented. Our engineers around the world are advancing the systems that will ultimately help make drivers smarter, safer and more efficient.”

The technologies address different tasks, but use much of the same camera and radar hardware that have been leaking into vehicles for a number of years.

James M. Amend is associate editor at WardsAuto.com