MCity and the Race to Get Connected Cars on the Road
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Olson said his project is a “poster child for MCity” and the various technologies the university is seeking to help develop.
“The challenge is that 98 percent of all driving is incredibly boring and 2 percent isn’t—no two events are the same,” he added. “So many things can go wrong. But we can take thousands of kilometers of real-world driving and, with MCity, we can concentrate that down and we can really make it nasty and mean-spirited just like it sometimes is in the real world. MCity is less a test track and more a robot with sensing, thinking, and acting along with embedded computing. Rather than take the car to the test track, with MCity, we set up the interaction and then the test track puts the vehicle through its paces.”
When Olson first introduced himself to me earlier in our interview, he joked that his lab was doing the same kind of research as Google’s autonomous vehicle program, “only better”—in fact, Olson said some of his former students are now part of Google’s self-driving car research team—and it seems clear that the competition to get these technologies into the market first is something MCity’s constituents are all too aware of.
Olson said, in general, he’s optimistic that a safe, autonomous vehicle is possible, though the journey to putting one on the road might be a long one.
“Building an autonomous car is really hard,” he said. “People travel 100 million miles per fatality in this country, and that level of performance is amazing. We’re going to see new failure models with autonomous cars and it’s not a given they’ll be safer—that’s the challenge. There’s lots of technology still needed. Some of the stuff we can do right away, but some stuff we’ll probably still be scratching our heads about 10 years from now.”
What role Michigan will ultimately play in the development of connected and autonomous car technologies remains to be seen, but Olson agrees that the Great Lakes State has the advantage of proximity.
“Michigan has a grasp on the auto industry, but it would be really easy to take for granted,” he said. “There’s something to admire about the West Coast sentiment of, ‘Screw it, let’s do it.’ MCity is a great down payment on keeping Michigan the center of connected vehicles, but we need to be cognizant that this is a fast-moving field and Detroit is not the only place capable of developing these technologies.”
One reason the University of Michigan’s MCity connected vehicle research center is so unique is the sizeable contingent of prominent industry partners it has recruited. MCity has 15 “leadership circle” companies that have each ponied up money to support its research, including Ford, GM, Nissan, Navistar, and State Farm.
Based in Germany and the world’s third-largest manufacturer of appliances, Bosch is focused on automatic emergency braking technology that combines a radar sensor with a mono video camera to classify objects in a car’s path, enabling a driver warning system that helps prevent or mitigate front collisions with pedestrians.
Delphi is one of very few auto suppliers worldwide capable of providing and integrating all of the technologies required to make autonomous vehicles a reality. Delphi has already developed an automated vehicle that has traveled cross-country, and the newest generation of its driver alertness-sensing technology, delivered through a tablet interface, helps reduce driver distraction.
Denso, a major world supplier of automotive components and technology, is developing tools to make autonomous technologies work together, including dedicated short-range and data communication modules, driver status monitoring, and head-up displays.
A leader in transportation management tools since 1933, Econolite is developing a vehicle-to-infrastructure kiosk that includes traffic-controlling software and other connected vehicle communications that uses radio frequency technology to facilitate safer driving.
The global automaker demonstrated the potential of dedicated short-range communications between vehicles and smartphones through a proprietary vehicle-to-pedestrian app that can alert both driver and pedestrian to an imminent collision.
An IT company concentrating on the transportation and agriculture industries, California-based Iteris is focused on predictive traffic and weather analytics, reducing congestion, and improving safety. Iteris will integrate data generated by bicycles and vehicles at MCity into its research.
Specializing in mobile and wireless technology, Qualcomm’s Vehicle Integration Property car was on hand to demonstrate three of its top automotive advances: Halo and WiPower wireless charging technology, as well as dedicated short-range communications.
The world’s largest auto manufacturer exhibited its Vulnerable Road User test mannequins—adult, child, and bicyclist versions—used in standardized safety testing.
The telecommunications giant is seeking to advance car-sharing technology that runs as an app on any smartphone or tablet. The company’s technology is currently being used in the first large-scale, pay-by-the-mile road usage program in the U.S., happening now in Oregon.
The document management and business process corporation is developing video and short-range technologies capable of detecting and transmitting information about the number of passengers in a vehicle for use in determining a vehicle’s eligibility for high-occupancy vehicle lanes, as well as connected parking technology that guides drivers to open spots.