The concept of self-driving cars can seem both ubiquitous
and also oddly intangible. Especially in metro Detroit, we hear almost constant news of new and established companies working on autonomous vehicles, and regular discussion of how those vehicles might change our lives
. But the day when you'll be able to just walk into a dealership and buy a car that drives you home on its own is still years down the road.
However, the journey to fully autonomous vehicles will be a slow, iterative process – and it's already well underway. The Society of Automotive Engineers describes five different levels of vehicle automation
. Level one technology consists of driver assistance features, like adaptive cruise control that adjusts itself to maintain a safe following distance from other vehicles. Level five technology consists of fully self-driving car that requires no human driving.
"The automotive industry is actually pretty quickly going through these levels of automation now," says John Abraham, Macomb County director of traffic and operations. "For the longest time we have been stuck at zero. We are now at one and two."
A separate, but closely interrelated, part of the picture is connected vehicle technology. The blanket term "connected and autonomous vehicles," or CAV, is frequently used. But what's the difference between the two? Connected vehicles are those that can interact digitally with the world around them, whether with other vehicles or infrastructure on the road.
Connected vehicles may have no autonomous features, but connected vehicle technology will likely play a major role in helping any autonomous vehicle understand the world around it. For example, a connected vehicle with a human driver behind the wheel might broadcast its location, speed, and direction to the vehicles around it. An autonomous vehicle nearby might use that information to avoid a potential crash with no input from its own passenger.
"Connected does not require automated, and automated does not necessarily require connected," says Greg McGuire, MCity
lab director. "But ... a connected system can serve as a kind of sixth sense, another level of redundancy for the existing sensors."
Life in a connected environment
Connected and autonomous technologies are both increasingly present in our daily lives in ways we may not expect. Elaina Farnsworth is CEO of The NEXT Education
, a Pontiac- and Sterling Heights-based company that offers training on CAV-related topics for the automotive industry. She says "we live very much in a connected environment already."
"We just don't necessarily recognize it when it's there, because you can't see the connectivity," says Farnsworth.
Elaina Farnsworth is CEO of Pontiac- and Sterling Heights-based The NEXT Education.
Take for example the connected vehicle infrastructure the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) has installed in the I-75 modernization work zone in Oakland County. In partnership with 3M, MDOT placed 2-D barcodes on construction signs, barrels, and worker vests in the work zone. A connected vehicle passing through could use its sensors to read the barcodes and thereby perceive an approaching lane closure or the presence of nearby workers. However, the barcodes are not visible to the naked human eye.
The specific ways in which a vehicle may use that information are left up to manufacturers. Magna
and other manufacturers who have tested vehicles in the work zone might create a feature that causes a vehicle to automatically reduce its speed when it detects an oncoming work zone, or to display a warning for the driver. MDOT has installed permanent barcodes as the 75 project has been completed so that any manufacturer can now make use of them.
"The super-cool part of the permanent deployment is now (manufacturers are) not waiting on an owner-operator to go out and do an install," says Michele Mueller, senior project manager for CAV at MDOT. "They can go out today ... and get in their vehicles, for the companies that have that technology, and start testing. They don't need anything else."
Other applications of connected vehicle technology are at least a bit more visible. Macomb County has currently equipped five intersections with roadside units that Abraham describes as "a glorified antenna." The units continuously broadcast information about traffic signals at the intersection, communicating what color the signals are and when they'll change next, as well as tracking the position and speed of connected vehicles that pass through. The county plans to install another 25 such units this summer, and another 300 by 2019.
Connected vehicles can "see" embedded images within the infrastructure.
Abraham says the number of connected vehicles already passing through the intersections has been surprising. He says the county expected to track "maybe two or three" connected vehicles per day, but the actual number has been over 100 per day.
"We want to be ahead of the curve," Abraham says. "We realize the vast safety benefits we can reap from using this technology. So if we are ready from the infrastructure side of things, as the vehicles start getting these onboard units and the technology in them we will start readily realizing the safety benefits."
The road ahead
As connected and autonomous technologies continue to evolve, they'll overlap in increasingly advanced and complex ways.
"We're going to be moving more toward autonomy," Farnsworth says. "The level three and four autonomy takes a little bit more precision, and it's going to be a little bit longer before we have a really ubiquitous environment where everybody's doing it."
One of the most recent and most advanced autonomous vehicles to hit the market is the 2018 Cadillac CT6, which is equipped with a "Super Cruise" feature allowing for hands-free highway driving as long as the driver's eyes remain on the road. That makes it a level two autonomous vehicle. But as technology marches toward level three and level four autonomy, vehicles will need to navigate freeways – and eventually, denser urban centers – with zero driver attention.
That's where connected infrastructure like Macomb County's roadside units will come in handy.
"Say a car enters Macomb County," Abraham says. "I can send a map of all the places where we have construction going on. That could help in navigation and it could help in the safety of the person themself."
Connected infrastructure will also be highly useful in helping autonomous vehicles anticipate traffic signal changes or impending collisions. It'll allow for the development of new systems that could lengthen green-light cycles to give public transit vehicles, emergency vehicles, or even snow plows uninterrupted (or mostly uninterrupted) travel through intersections.
The future potential for connected and autonomous technology is practically unlimited – and it's all coming together here in Michigan. McGuire describes a rich mobility ecosystem including MCity, larger test facilities like the American Center for Mobility
, automakers, original equipment manufacturers, and state government. He envisions a "pipeline" for technology development and improvement in southeast Michigan, where all the players work together to create, perfect, implement, and then develop policy around technological innovations. And he expects that pipeline to expand.
"We're not setting up in southeast Michigan to exclude," McGuire says. "We're really setting up in southeast Michigan to include Silicon Valley companies and other non-traditional mobility companies."
Photos by Nick Hagen