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Connected Car Data to Inform Ann Arbor’s Transportation Plan

The Michigan college town is using its ongoing partnership with the University of Michigan and private industry to gather and share data from connected vehicle and infrastructure interactions.

Ann Arbor, Mich., a college town with deep research roots and ties to automotive history, is ground zero for testing the latest vehicle-to-infrastructure technology. Those behind the work hope it can be used to cut traffic in the region and beyond.

The Ann Arbor Connected Environment (AACE) is considered the largest deployment of connected vehicle technology in North America, boasting more than 2,500 connected vehicles “talking” to some 75 connected intersections.

The deployment, structured as a multi-pronged agreement among the city, the university and the private sector, was formed about seven years ago with the goal of using this city in southern Michigan near Detroit, and home to the University of Michigan, as a test site for real-world deployments of connected vehicle technologies which involve in-vehicle devices and roadside units.

Much of this project is guided by University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI), a research institute administratively housed in the University of Michigan College of Engineering. The work is also aided by Mcity, a research arm of the university designed to study advanced mobility research and serve as the nexus of academia, government and the private sector.

In 2012, together with the U.S. Department of Transportation, UMTRI launched the largest connected vehicle pilot in the world, Safety Pilot Model Deployment. AACE is an extension of that project.

“What we’ve been trying to do is understand how we can use these new emerging technologies to improve the traffic,” said Huei Peng, director of Mcity.

“Understanding, when, where, how people travel, where are the problems like congestion or safety issues are very important,” he added. 

UMTRI quickly formed relationships and partnerships with City Hall to deploy and test technologies, taking the lead to secure grants and other funding to make the urban landscape test bed a reality.

“One of the things that is important to underscore here is that UMTRI and Mcity were very cognizant of the city’s needs when they were putting together those grant proposals,” explained Raymond Hess, transportation manager for Ann Arbor.

“If we’re looking at a large-scale deployment, like we have here, it was helpful to sell it to senior leadership and city council to say, ‘Look, this isn’t all on city time. This isn’t all unpaid. The city is going to be reimbursed,’” said Hess.  

Up to this point, the project has been gathering data and exploring how to put this data to practical use. The university holds the data, while the city transmits it via its fiber communications infrastructure.

“I think there’s a lot of potential there that still remains untapped, that we’re in continued discussions with university on,” said Hess. “And so what’s great is they’re engaging us. They’re asking us, ‘What is it you want to know about what’s happening along the corridor?’”

A big part of the project is understanding the depth and origins of congestion in Ann Arbor, a city of about 125,000 that swells significantly with workers serving a medical campus, as well as the traffic generated by the university.

“We have fairly significant A.M. and P.M. recurring congestion,” said Hess.

Some of the data being explored revolves around the distance a connected vehicle stops before an intersection, suggesting congestion and stacking at that intersection. Other sensors feeding information into the traffic management system provide details about real-time signal timing.

“Using all of this we are able to build enough data and modeling to understand where are the traffic bottlenecks of the city,” said Peng. “We are envisioning how this new technology can be used by the city.”

Ann Arbor is updating its transportation plan, and is having discussions about what concepts should guide the transportation plan of the future. Safety will likely be a top value, as will sustainability, multimodal transportation and congestion management, said Hess.

In about 10 months, the city hopes to have a clearer picture of which direction to take the updated transportation plan. Some of the data collected from the Connected Environment could help to inform that planning process, added Hess.

Ann Arbor as an epicenter for this sort of technology testing may not be the result of simply having a key ingredient in its backyard: automotive research with long connections to the industry. It is more likely, said Hess, a combination of rich academic tradition and city leaders eager to explore technology and innovation.

“Just because you have a major research institution, alone, may not be enough. Having leadership at the city that’s supportive, I think, is an important element,” said Hess. 

The city’s leadership is “very much willing to try things,” he added. “They’re very much for something new and innovative.”

However admirable and desirable solving traffic congestion in Ann Arbor may be, Mcity hopes to have an even wider impact.

“...What we see in Michigan, in particular the engineering school, we are not happy with just doing a science project,” said Peng. “We want to change the world. There are a lot of problems: food, water, illness and many other problems. And so, in transportation engineering we want to make sure that what we study is really changing the society.”

Editor's Note: This story has been updated from its earlier version to better clarify UMTRI's role in the Ann Arbor Connected Environment deployment. 

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.

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