Macomb County is ready for connected mobility

Imagine trying to call a friend who doesn’t have a phone. You can dial a number again and again, but if your friend can’t answer, communication simply won’t happen.

The world of connected vehicles is much the same. To reach maximum potential, cars equipped with vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) communication require an infrastructure that can, in essence, answer the phone.

Market experts suggest that 75 percent of cars shipped by 2020 will be connected, but will roadways and intersections be equipped and ready to answer the call?

While many cities, towns, and counties are waiting to see how the technology rolls out, Macomb County has been steadily preparing for connected vehicles for the past 10 years. By planning and implementing a centralized traffic and communications center (COMTEC), colocated with 911 emergency dispatch and information technology services for the entire county, Macomb has created an environment poised to maximize V2I technology.

“In one scenario, if a connected car gets into a crash, an alert comes to the center immediately and sends information that the airbag was deployed, and the extent of the damage. The emergency dispatch center gets the information also, and we can deploy the right resources to the crash using the GPS location of the accident,” says John Abraham, director of traffic and operations at Macomb County Department of Roads. COMTEC’s video wall can display images from 250 surveillance cameras that can be targeted to the crash.

Motivated by the goal of increased safety, Abraham and his team are working to bring the annual number of vehicle crashes in Macomb County to zero. V2I and vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications can inform drivers of unsafe situations so they can take action to avert collision.

“If there is a big benefit in the safety area, as a transportation engineer, I want to do everything to equip myself and be ready. Even when 10 to 20 percent connected vehicles make up the market, there will be a huge benefit,” says Abraham.

Macomb County's COMTEC

At the center of Macomb County’s connected technology is the roadside unit, or RSU, an antenna-looking box located at the intersection that gathers and broadcasts information to, among other things, control the signal timing. When programmed according to specific standards, the RSU can also communicate with connected vehicles equipped with on-board units (OBUs), to alert drivers of a changing signal through an audio or haptic alarm. Recently tested was active braking technology that signaled drivers when a traffic light was close to turning red.

“You have reduced the likelihood of collision by giving information to the driver inside the vehicle,” says Abraham. Broadly, the broadcasted information is called SPaT, or signal phasing and timing.

Tomorrow’s technology today

Currently, COMTEC engineers can prioritize traffic signals for emergency vehicles approaching an intersection, or maximize traffic flow during specific events, like fireworks shows, or freeway closures.

Future innovations can program RSUs to offer speed guidance in corridors with short-distance speed limit changes, or to alert a driver that a lane is closing due to construction. Eventually, connected vehicles can provide information about vacant parking spots, and even communicate with other modes of transportation, like buses, pedestrians, even bicycles, all using the same technology.

“A biker on a trail may be approaching an intersection and need to cross. They can push a button from their smartphone as they approach for a walk signal to come on. It’s just another example of how we can be more innovative,” Abraham says.

By controlling transit signal priority, COMTEC can extend a green light for a few seconds to allow a bus to maintain an on-time schedule, or keep a snowplow moving for better efficiency when clearing the roads.

Leading the nation by lightyears

It may seem like every county in the country is developing this technology, but Macomb County is one of just a few dozen locations across the U.S. that have installed connected technology, and one of just a handful to have an operational RSU.

Macomb County is working toward achieving what is called the SPaT challenge, a call for public sector entities to coordinate SPat broadcasts in one or more corridor, to include 20 or more connected intersections, in each state by 2020.

“Slowly the states are picking up, and at the county level there aren’t too many doing mainstream connected vehicle technology efforts,” says Abraham. In Michigan, Oakland County, Washtenaw County, and the City of Detroit are working toward various levels of connectivity.

Macomb County currently has five RSUs completely operational, and will install 20 to 25 additional units this summer. Federal grants will provide the funding to have 301 RSUs installed by early 2019, and the goal is to have all 740 traffic signals in the county connected within three years.

Connected vehicle innovators and OEMs are already testing their programs on the RSUs, and a team at Macomb County is communicating with additional organizations to expand testing. This team presented information at the ITS World Congress in Montreal in 2017, and, while there, shared a booth with PlanetM to attract and collaborate with potential innovators to test their products--a prospect made easier due to centralized control by the county.

“Every one of the 740 intersection signals here are maintained by the county, so we have the luxury of a centralized system. We control what goes on the system, and therefore the reliability is very high,” says Abraham.

Within just a few years, Macomb County will be fully connected, and every communication-enabled vehicle that enters the county will be able to take full advantage of this technology.

“It’s an exciting time to be in transportation, and to see all of these things unfold,” says Abraham. “We used to dream of the Jetsons age, and it’s almost coming to reality now.”
Signup for Email Alerts