Ann Arbor: An automated journey

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Picture a medium-sized city in the US state of Michigan. A park, a couple of museums, some local pubs. That’s all quite nice, but something else calls the tune in this city: a major educational institution, the University of Michigan. The city in quest is called Ann Arbor named after the founder’s wife – how romantic, isn’t it? The university is not only by far the region’s major employer, its influence is ubiquitous. The yellow “M” on the blue background decorates houses, streets, and grand buildings like the Michigan football stadium. However, in around eight years, people will get to know Ann Arbor for something slightly different.

A ghost town full of driverless cars

By 2021, Ann Arbor could become one of the greatest mobility pioneers of the 21st century. It could then be the only city in the entire world with a networked fleet of driverless cars. This sizeable endeavor is an initiative led by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI). In order to achieve it, the university acquired a space of nearly 130.000 square meters in the north east of the town.[1] The site, which formerly belonged to pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, will be converted into a driverless car testing facility. While many companies are pushing automated driving as well, Michigan University’s approach is somewhat different. First of all, the project doesn’t bet on sensor technology. Google and Mercedes Benz, for example, use built-in sensors to navigate vehicles around obstacles. The university engineers, on the other hand, put their trust in radio signaling transmission.

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Thereby, every car is equipped with a wireless device that continuously sends and receives signals. And because these devices will not only be placed in vehicles but also at nodes at traffic lights, intersections, and roadway curves, the project is aiming for the bigger picture: they do not only focus on the cars as signalers, but see the environment as an integral part of the signal exchange process, too. Ten times a second, these cars are “communicating” with their environment and thus create – like a puzzle – a full image of the surroundings. The advantage of using radio transmission inside cars and the environment becomes clear during winter. A vehicle covered in snow substantially constrains sensor signaling, a problem radio transmission devices are immune to. It’s not only the technology of the vehicles that need to be changed. The successful implementation of driverless driving requires a full makeover of our infrastructure as well.

A golden future?

So off to work, a lot has to be done still! After all, a massive urban space has to be turned into a realistic traffic scenery with streets, sidewalks, traffic lights and the like. Yet, a lot has been done by now. Under the name “Safety Pilot”, the UMTRI managed to convince some 3.000 Ann Arbor residents to install the radio transmission technology into their own cars already. The project was terminated in summer 2013 and currently, researchers are evaluating the 11 billion safety messages generated.[2] It looks rather good for Ann Arbor. If the cooperation turns out to be successful, then Ann Arbor will forever be the first city where one doesn’t own a car: one simply calls the next free vehicle via smartphone, gets in, and takes a nap until arriving at the one’s desired destination. So called “petrol heads” will not approve, but the rest of mankind will.

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