Vehicle collision fatality rates have been roughly halved in the last 25 years. For every 100 million miles collectively traveled by Americans in 1989, 2.17 people died from collisions – in 2009, that figure had dropped to 1.15, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And in 2011, the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration announced that statistics from the previous year showed traffic fatalities had dropped to 1.10 -- an all-time low, despite an increase in how much people were driving. Advances in vehicle technology, research and policy making have gone a long way in protecting occupants when collisions occur, said Francine Romine, director of marketing and communications for the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute – now it’s time to stop collisions from happening in the first place.

On May 6, the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI) broke ground on the Michigan Mobility Transformation Center (MTC), a $30 million simulated city that will be used to test connected vehicle and infrastructure technologies that could help save tens of thousands of lives each year.

“What we propose to do in our test facility is take it a step further,” Romine said. “We can’t simulate a crash situation on the streets of Ann Arbor. It would be unsafe. It’s illegal. But we can do it in a closed environment.”

At a Glance: The Michigan Mobility Transformation Center

Primarily funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), the simulated city will occupy 32 acres in northeast Ann Arbor, Mich., and provide researchers and industry partners like Bosch, Econolite, Ford, General Motors, Toyota and Xerox with a tool to test technologies and scenarios they can’t test on real city streets. The simulated city will be built like a movie set and feature obstacles like stationary and mechanized pedestrians, construction areas, fire hydrants and railroad crossings.

“Connected technology is really foundational to the future of transportation, how people, how freight are going to be getting around, how we’re going to be accessing goods and services,” Romine said. “It’s the connected aspect – how do vehicles communicate with each other, how they communicate with the infrastructure, how vulnerable users fit into this mix – they’re all important parts of the system.”

Aside from technologies designed to prevent collisions, examples of other technologies to be tested in the MTC include the Xerox Merge smart parking system and the company's Vehicle Passenger Detection System, which uses video analytics to identify how many occupants are in vehicles traveling in carpool lanes.

The simulated city, which Romine said is scheduled for partial completion by this September, provides a supplementary data-gathering tool to accompany the university’s growing Safety Pilot Model Deployment, a research project that gleans lessons from data that was collected by 2,800 vehicles operating on real roadways.

Each vehicle participating in that pilot is equipped with a short-range communication device that logs basic information about each vehicle, like direction, heading and speed. Several hundred of the cars were also equipped with data receivers that received the speeds, headings and directions of other vehicles. Connected vehicles that can communicate with each other and with the environment have the potential to reduce unimpaired driver collisions by more than 80 percent, according to the DOT, and that, Romine said, is why they’re expanding their research on multiple fronts.

Safety Pilot Model Deployment Expansion

In addition to constructing a simulated city, the roadway pilot is also being expanded to include more vehicles and cover a larger geographic area. The university got the information it wanted from the group of 2,900 participants, so it's expanding the project to make it a group of 9,000, Romine said. The deployment area will also be expanded from a small area in northeast Ann Arbor to the entire city, which is about 27 square miles. After that, she added, highways and freeways will be included in the pilot, the university will partner with state agencies, and the pilot will be expanded again to include 20,000 vehicles.

“So we’ll have 20,000 vehicles out in the deployment area of southeast Michigan sending and receiving basic safety messages, collecting the data that we can [use to] do modeling that will be critical in deploying this technology on a very large scale," she said, "and also the technology is important for an automated system."

When the Safety Pilot Model Deployment was conceived, planners realized that success was contingent on getting citizens to cooperate, and some thought there would be trouble finding the 2,800 participants needed, Romine said. “That meant we were going to have a lot of people who were going to bring their personal vehicle here, we’re going to drill a hole in it, we’re going to install technology," she explained, "and then we’re going to ask you to come back about every four or five months and we’re going to pull a little chip out of it, download some data and send you on your way."

What happened is that they very quickly got more than 4,000 volunteers who were vying for spots, and the reason is because traffic collisions are a leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 35, Romine said. “We were getting expressions of interest from around the country, people saying ‘I want to be a part of this,’” she said. “I think that when it comes to vehicle safety, when it comes to saving your family’s lives, everybody is interested in this.”

Colin Wood Colin Wood  |  Staff Writer

Colin has been writing for Government Technology since 2010. He lives in Seattle with his wife and their dog. He can be reached at cwood@govtech.com and on Google+.