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How Connected Vehicles Are Changing Detroit’s Roads

Experts say that smarter roads could reduce car accidents and fatalities, and they could also let roads agencies know about debris in the roadway, potholes and other things that need attention.

(TNS) — Metro Detroit motorists on westbound Interstate 94 near Belleville will notice something new on the roadway ― three-foot tall white poles jut from the far left lane.

These so-called delineators span three miles between Haggerty and Rawsonville roads. They mark a lane that's being used to test connected and automated vehicle technology, which allows connected cars to communicate with the roadway and with each other.

It's part of a pilot project between the Michigan Department of Transportation and Cavnue, a Washington, D.C.-based firm that develops and integrates technologies for roadways. This technology is meant to make roads safer and more efficient.

Anticipated to run until December 2025, the pilot is the first connected and automated vehicle corridor on a freeway in the country, according to the Michigan Department of Transportation.

It's one of several examples of how connected vehicle technology is being adopted on roads in Metro Detroit. The Macomb County Department of Roads has set up devices at all of its signalized intersections that will tell future cars information, such as if they're about to run a red light. Oakland County has added these devices to a small number of its intersections, and Wayne County is using technology to track salt trucks.

Ultimately, smarter roads could reduce car accidents and fatalities, experts said. They could also let roads agencies know about debris in the roadway, potholes and other things that need attention.

More than 40,000 people have died on U.S. roadways annually for the past two years, according to federal statistics. John Abraham, director of traffic and operations at the Macomb County Department of Roads, said, “We have to bring it down.”

“There will be ... things which are technology-related that will help, and connected vehicle technology is one of those tools in the toolbox that would help reduce these crashes,” Abraham said.

The connected vehicle technology makes "our infrastructure smarter" because "everything talks to everything," he added, meaning they communicate with the roadway infrastructure, and the infrastructure communicates with pedestrians.

A connected vehicle corridor

The state's transportation department is partnering with Cavnue on the I-94 Connected and Automated Vehicle Pilot Project. Cavnue is paying for the project, and the digital infrastructure involved was installed between last fall and this spring. A special surface coating was applied this week. Company spokesperson Casey Hudson said they are not disclosing the cost of the pilot at this stage, but last year the initial estimate was $10 million.

Tyler Duvall, CEO of Cavnue, said the pilot is "the first rendition" of what a future roadway could look like. The left lane is bordered on its right side by the white delineators. Sensor poles, which are 55 feet tall, stand in the median of I-94, and fiber runs underneath the median, connecting the poles to a computer.

Duvall said Cavnue has built software models that are being trained by the roadway. The sensor poles collect information about the roadway and traffic conditions, and the models are learning from it. The model will learn, for example, to recognize the difference between a car tire sitting on the roadway and a paper bag.

"It's just gonna get smarter and smarter," he said.

Information about debris on the freeway will be sent to MDOT, so the agency can remove it from the road.

Duvall said Cavnue also is applying a high-friction surface treatment to I-94, which is a material that provides better traction for tires. It helps motorists maintain better control in dry and wet conditions, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

In addition, Cavnue is partnering with Ford Motor Co. to run vehicles through the express lane and conduct tests. The company is looking at the performance of advanced driver systems, such as automatic braking and the ability of a car to adjust itself in the lane.

The express lane is normally open to all vehicles except semi-trucks, but it will be closed during some off-peak times for testing purposes, according to MDOT.

The pilot is the first stage of a larger project, which envisions a technology-enabled express lane along each direction of I-94 between Ann Arbor and Detroit. If MDOT and Cavnue decide to proceed with the project, it will be adopted in phases.

Michele Mueller, a manager for connected, automated and electrification at MDOT, said connected vehicle technology is an opportunity for the agency to "look at a solution that can make the roadway safer" and improve mobility.

"Our job is to keep our citizens safe and try to move them as efficiently as possible, and that includes passenger vehicles, freight vehicles, ... transit, you name it," Mueller said.

How Macomb Co. is using technology

Abraham, Macomb County's director of traffic and operations, said the department is always looking for “the next big thing in safety,” so it can be implemented and reduce the number of traffic crashes in the county.

The department decided to be proactive and install connected vehicle technology at the county’s intersections, he said. That way, when vehicles start getting equipped with this technology, the county will start seeing the safety benefits.

Abraham estimated that automakers will start putting the technology in some of their higher-class vehicles over the next three or so years, and then will add it to other vehicles in the following years.

From 2018 to 2023, the Department of Roads installed roadside units, which are like antennas broadcasting information, at all of the county’s signalized intersections. Eventually, cars will be able to pick up that information.

The department has tested a red-light warning system, which will inform motorists that they're driving too fast and will need to slow down not to run a red light.

The Department of Roads has also partnered with the Sterling Heights Fire Department to test something called "signal preemption." When an ambulance is responding to an emergency, it will send out a message that will be picked up by a roadside unit and sent to the controller. The controller will then "preempt the signals" along the ambulance's route, so it gets green lights all the way to its destination.

The department has also partnered with General Motors Co. on a pothole detection project. Sensors in vehicles collect data about roads, and that data will help the department know where in the county there is rough pavement or potholes.

Automakers have been using Macomb County's network to test out connected vehicle technology.

"We have the biggest playground of connected vehicle technology in the country, as far as our network," said Bryan Santo, the department's director, about the county.

What Wayne, Oakland are doing

Scott Cabauatan, deputy director for Wayne County's Department of Public Services, said the county has used vehicle locator technology to track its salt trucks for several years.

"It's more of a GPS breadcrumb trail of where the vehicle's been," he said.

He said the salt trucks are also equipped with sensors that detect the road temperature. This helps department staff understand the weather conditions around the county.

Cabauatan said the county's light vehicles, like supervisor pickup trucks and pool cars, also have GPS trackers.

In Oakland County officials have been part of the discussion surrounding connected vehicle technology for over 20 years, and "now we're finally doing it," said Danielle Deneau, director of the traffic safety department at the Road Commission for Oakland County.

The commission installed roadside units at seven intersections in the county in 2023. These devices, which are attached to signal mast arms, send out messages to cars equipped with CVT — a type of automatic transmission — about the timing of signals and their location.

While Oakland County has been testing connected vehicle technology for years, it has held off on widespread deployment because the technology is continually changing, said Gary Piotrowicz, deputy managing director and county highway engineer for the county's road commission.

Deneau said the Road Commission for Oakland County received a $1.45 million Strengthening Mobility and Revolutionizing Transportation (SMART) grant from the federal government last year. It will use the grant to equip five intersections in Southfield, Royal Oak and Oak Park with roadside units.

The units will detect pedestrians and bicyclists, and alert drivers when they are crossing at or near an intersection. County officials are also looking at using "signal priority" to help snowplows travel more efficiently, Deneau said.

As part of the grant, Oakland County is having a consultant interview automakers, suppliers and freight companies to see what they'd be willing to pay to benefit from the connected vehicle technology. The county could perhaps preempt signals for company vehicles, for example, Deneau said.

Piotrowicz said the road commission competed with agencies across the country for the grant, and what he said he believes set Oakland County apart was that it's looking at how to fund the implementation of connected vehicle technology.

"The problem is nobody has a good business plan to get this out there," he said.

The federal government is currently only funding demonstration projects and small-area pilots of connected vehicle technology, not widespread deployment, he added. The road commission wanted to look at how to make the technology financially viable and have it "continue to reinvest in itself," he said.

Piotrowicz said the commission hopes to become "a model that can be reinitiated across all the road agencies across the country."

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