In late August, the biggest road test of vehicle-to-vehicle crash avoidance technology began in Ann Arbor, Mich. The pilot includes players from the city, state and federal levels, as well as industry — top automakers are collaborating on vehicle-to-vehicle technology so that once it comes to market, Ford can talk to Toyota, which can talk to Volkswagen, and so on.

In this model deployment, approximately 3,000 vehicles are equipped with transmitters and receivers that communicate not only with one another, but also with a central infrastructure — and more than 73 lane miles are outfitted with various technologies to gather data that the vehicles transmit.

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The data collected during this pilot will help lawmakers, industry and government determine whether to proceed, ultimately making vehicle-to-vehicle technology commonplace.

Sixty-four cars in the connected vehicle pilot are outfitted with even more sophisticated equipment that warns drivers of impending danger, said Farid Ahmed-Zaid, technical expert in Ford Motor Co.’s Active Safety Department. “They have cameras that are continuously recording the scene — inside the cabin looking at the face of the driver and on the side of the mirror that is also looking at the driver with some infrared illumination to see the driver’s face at night,” he said.

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For cities, the implications of this pilot lie primarily on the traffic management side of things, said Ann Arbor IT Director Dan Rainey. “I see us being able to understand traffic flow, understand conditions of roads earlier maybe than we could normally so we could more effectively use our funds to maintain this infrastructure,” he said. “It’s better road management, and safer roads is a big deal — 38,000 people die annually in car accidents and 2.2 million are injured. With this kind of technology, cars are smarter and they are reacting to other cars sending out messages. So safer streets for us is probably another thing we’re looking for.”

The city is overseeing the deployment of wireless infrastructure in the northeastern portion of Ann Arbor that will be used to exchange data with the instrumented vehicles, Rainey said. The city also is a partner in the resulting downstream processes — essentially with the data collected during the pilot. “The cars equipped with new technology are going to broadcast information at 10 messages per second,” he said, “and those messages will be collected by this infrastructure, and all this data will be analyzed.” The purpose of which, he said, is to see if the vehicle-to-vehicle technology is viable as a safety protocol and if the manufacturing technology will work.

Care to Take a Test Drive?

In this "test drive," see how cars in the future might react if another vehicle in the distance slams on its brakes, and the one in front of you suddenly swerves. Want to see more? This video shows what might happen if, when about to proceed at a green light, your car senses another vehicle coming from the right. And this video shows the car signifying to the driver that a vehicle ahead has slammed on its brakes and this driver should do the same.

Ann Arbor expects the pilot ultimately to provide information that will help it manage traffic more effectively, said Les Sipowski, a senior project manager for the city. But it’s also important that the test doesn’t disrupt daily life for residents. “We have 270,000 [vehicles] crossing the border of Ann Arbor [every day], and we cannot in any way make traffic conditions worse,” he said. “But if we can provide a good, safe environment for this project, that will be our goal from the city perspective.”

The safety pilot is a contract with the University of Michigan, with 20 percent of the money coming from the university and 80 percent coming from the federal government, said Program Manager James Sayer, a research scientist at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. He added that as of October, the project’s funding sat at about $26 million.

During a demonstration of the equipment in Ann Arbor in October, the technology warned a driver of a car in his blind spot by flashing a light in the rearview mirror and by vibrating the seats. And when stopped at an intersection, the system used red lights flashing across the windshield and vibrating seats to warn the driver that an oncoming car had run the red light.

Car Tech in Detail

In this video, Farid Ahmed-Zaid, technical expert with Ford's Active Safety Department gives a tour of the various vehicle technologies being tested in the pilot project.

Eight auto manufacturers — Ford, General Motors, Honda, Hyundai-Kia, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Toyota and Volkswagen — are working to standardize the equipment and adapt it to their own particular vehicles.  “You need to establish protocols and communication protocols,” Ahmed-Zaid said. “All eight OEMs [original equipment manufacturers] need to work together and agree on what needs to be sent out so that each OEM can adapt their system and their application to using that same information. Once that’s done, Hyundai, Kia, Volkswagen, Nissan, Mercedes, Toyota, Honda, GM or Ford can basically design their own competitive features inside the vehicle.”

In early November, Volvo also pledged to implement vehicle-to-vehicle technology by 2016.

Jessica Mulholland  |  Web Editor/Photographer

Jessica Mulholland has been a writer and editor for more than 10 years. She was previously the editor of Emergency Management magazine, and she loves that she can incorporate her love of photography into her work as a part of the Government Technology editorial team. Jessica can be reached at jmulholland@govtech.com@jbronwen on Twitter and on Google+.