ANN ARBOR, Mich. — At this high-tech proving ground, the roads are packed, and there's no tall fence to keep everything hidden from view.
The vehicles being tested look no different than what you find anywhere in the country on a typical day. Here, researchers at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute are studying how those vehicles can communicate with the world around them — technology they say is closer to widespread deployment than autonomous vehicles are.
To demonstrate the potential of connected vehicles, more than just a few loops of empty pavement are needed. So all 27 square miles of Ann Arbor, Mich., will become an inconspicuous, real-world test bed.
Outside the research institute's office, technicians working under a large tentlike structure move in perfect rhythm to install short-range communication devices on vehicles that belong to people who live or work in the city. The vehicles get a small box in their trunk or cargo area, one on or near the rear window and another on the trunk lid or vehicle roof.
Eventually, the institute aims to have more than 3,000 vehicles equipped with the devices. That number updates constantly, but as of press time, there were 450 such vehicles deployed.
About half of the devices in use merely transmit messages to researchers about an event the vehicle experienced. The other devices collect data while also providing visual and audible alerts to the driver, such as when a pedestrian is detected or a red-light violation occurs. The devices communicate with one another and with connected infrastructure throughout the city, allowing researchers to collect speed and positioning data to learn about participants' driving patterns and how their vehicles interact with traffic and their environment.
The $15 million project stems from a three-year study that the research institute and U.S. Department of Transportation started in 2012 to assess the effectiveness of connected-vehicle safety technology, using nearly 3,000 vehicles and 73 lane-miles of roads. The institute then expanded its existing infrastructure in 2015 to create the Ann Arbor Connected Vehicle Test Environment.