You are viewing this article in the archives. For the latest breaking news and updates in Ann Arbor and the surrounding area, see
Posted on Sun, May 27, 2012 : 5:59 a.m.

Could Southeast Michigan become the next Silicon Valley? Ann Arbor's real-world 3,000-car wireless project may decide

By Kellie Woodhouse


Researchers say connected vehicles can help to mitigate crashes on busy urban streets.

USDOT photo

The future of driving is changing— and fast. In the near future drivers may not be driving at all, but minimally assisting or maybe just siting idly, along for the ride.

Intelligent vehicles —cars that tell drivers when they're at risk and eventually cars that decide for themselves when to merge and which route to take— are on the precipice, experts say.

And so is Southeast Michigan.

In less than three months, 3,000 cars with state-of-the-art wireless communication systems will be driving around Ann Arbor as part of a University of Michigan and U.S. Department of Transportation experiment: the largest real-world intelligent vehicle deployment ever conducted in North America.

Top transportation officials and experts are speculating that major automobile manufacturers and intelligent systems companies will likely come to Ann Arbor, wanting to test their technology in a large, global nucleus of connected vehicles.

"This is huge for Michigan, huge for the university and huge for the city," said Kirk T. Steudle, director of the Michigan Department of Transportation. "This area becomes the epicenter of connected vehicle research."

U-M's Transportation Research Institute last year won a multimillion dollar award from USDOT to deploy 3,000 intelligent vehicles in Ann Arbor. Those vehicles will have the ability to interact with one another and with devices on roadways so drivers are alerted of safety threats, traffic issues and suggested route changes due to the two.


Connected Vehicle warning devices can help drivers avoid serious lane change crashes, researchers say.

USDOT photo

The deployment pilot is part of USDOT's strategic plan to greatly reduce car accidents by using machines to communicate in ways and at a pace that drivers simply can't. And if all goes well in Michigan, USDOT will be looking to make some major regulatory changes starting in 2013, including possibly mandating the use of connected vehicle technology, according to a USDOT strategic plan.

The $22 million deployment project —$18 million of which is funded by USDOT— is also part of a growing emphasis on intelligent vehicle and autonomous machine research at U-M. According to U-M Vice President for Research Stephen Forrest, the connected vehicle deployment "is just the first of many things we have in mind."

Forrest said UMTRI researchers are also perfecting developments for the autonomous vehicle, a technology Google already is testing on Nevada roadways.

"We're in the middle of reinventing the automobile and this safety pilot is a really big chunk of that," Forrest said. "There are tremendous opportunities here to build the latest and newest."

Yet before UMTRI was awarded the contract last fall, landing the it was hardly a sure thing.

Other schools and research corridors with a stake in connected vehicle research fought to secure the deal. Virginia Tech University is engaged in two USDOT-funded connected vehicle research projects and Carnegie Mellon University recently received $3.5 million from USDOT to explore technologies that increase vehicle safety.

Ron Medford, deputy administrator for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and a key player in federal connected vehicle research, said U-M won out because "they had the best value and the best experimental design... (and) some previous experience."

The contract helps U-M remain a major player in cutting-edge vehicle technologies and landing it raised its profile even further. It also laid the groundwork for the southeast part of the state to become an incubator of intelligent vehicle research.

"If you think about where the next Silicon Valley could arise, I really do believe that Michigan is the place," Forrest said.

Forrest said Ann Arbor- and Detroit-area manufacturers and institutions have "never been collaborative and cooperative" enough to fully secure Michigan's continued prominence in a quickly changing automotive industry, but contends this newest project could turn that tide. He noted that the 'Big Three,' Ford, General Motors and Chrysler, are accompanied by a myriad of niche manufacturers and innovators along with a growing research corridor that includes U-M, Michigan State University and Wayne State University and conducts $1.878 billion in federal research annually.

According to Medford "the people who are already working on connected vehicle manufacturing [are] mostly in the Detroit-area. Many of them have technical centers there."

Of the eight companies providing wireless infrastructure for the deployment, three —including Denso International of America, DGE, Inc., and Auto Talks Ltd.— are either based in Michigan or have U.S. headquarters in Michigan. Three others are based out of California, one out of Australia and another out of Austria with U.S. headquarters in Virginia. Additionally a handful of Detroit-area auto companies are providing 128 new vehicles with integrated wireless systems for the study.

"What's happening in Ann Arbor is an assembling of the pieces that have been developed across the country, a lot of it in Michigan," said Richard Wallace, director of transportation systems analysis at the Center for Automotive Research.

Wallace noted that while U-M is creating a research design and framework for the deployment, it's testing technologies created and developed by other entities.

"It remains to be seen how this impacts things. I wouldn't expect, personally, a company that is based elsewhere and is developing the communications hardware for this technology will necessarily relocate to Michigan," he continued. The deployment may, however, encourage new start-ups to headquarter in Michigan.

It could also spur new collaborations, Wallace surmised. For example, Siemens, a traffic light and management systems developer with a presence in Michigan, might want to test wireless traffic signal controls that can communicate with the deployed vehicles, Wallace offered.

Jim Sayer, UMTRI Safety Pilot program manager and associate research scientist, said companies unaffiliated with the model deployment will be allowed to test their wireless technologies alongside affiliated vehicles and the 29 Ann Arbor locations that will have roadside wireless infrastructure.

Want to participate?

"We would love to have the test site support any companies that wanted to develop products here and certainly with the level of involvement of auto manufacturers, all of whom have some facilities in southeast Michigan, where better to place it?" Sayer said, adding that there's a chance the roadside infrastructure will remain in place after the year-long study ends summer 2013.

Steudle, who sits on UMTRI's external advisory board, said U-M and the state "are trying to figure out how we leverage this further."

"There's an economic development component to us maintaining our technological expertise," he explained. "How do we market this [and get companies to say] 'Hey, they already have this infrastructure, we can just do this [development] in Ann Arbor."

Steudle recalls when a press release from Minnesota came across his desk seven years ago, when Michigan's economy was floundering. The release told of a new development partnership between Minnesota and Ford.

"That's a bad deal. We can't have these high-paid engineers moving to Minnesota. We need to be providing whatever infrastructure they need," he said. "There's a big component of economic development and economic preservation to this."

Kellie Woodhouse covers higher education for Reach her at or 734-623-4602 and follow her on twitter.


Paul Bellefleur

Mon, May 28, 2012 : 1:20 p.m.

What part of this can I contribute to? Just let me know, thanks.


Mon, May 28, 2012 : 2:11 a.m.

Another sunday and the class war fare folks are back again helping the rich get richer and middle class people working harder for less.


Mon, May 28, 2012 : 12:11 a.m.

These cars are fascinating. Having worked in crash research, several years ago I had the opportunity to view the first fully completed trip by an autonomous vehicle and also to sit in a simulation of one of these "connected" cars. And like Ben Petiprin fears, it was somewhat unsettling to have the "vehicle" control what was going on. On the other hand, it could do things to keep me safe, much more quickly than I could do them myself. As I recall, the system could easily be over ridden by the driver/operator.


Sun, May 27, 2012 : 10:39 p.m.

I believe that the development of Silicon Valley was due largely to the unique relationship between Satanford and the surrounding industries. Hopefully UM is developing similar relationships.


Mon, May 28, 2012 : 2:31 a.m.

Yes and no. Some were university projects, and many weren't. UM still has a draconian IP policy. Google was not claimed as Stanford IP even though both founders were graduate students in Computer Science. Google could never have happened here because UM would probably tried to claim it, and it would have been a completely different outcome.


Sun, May 27, 2012 : 8:31 p.m.

Great article. Fascinating, and hopeful.


Sun, May 27, 2012 : 7:29 p.m.

Gee. I recall the same topic of conversation when Google announced that they were setting up a sales site here. Then again when A2 was on the list to become another Google city for some other project. Now this. From the city that hates the car and will do most anything to replace it with bicycles. Let's try something simple first, like efficiently moving traffic in and out of A2. Widening those busy streets (Washtenaw, Huron), timing lights, and stop taking traffic lanes down to two from four! Oh, lest I forget, this is the same city that built a 600 carpark in the middle of downtown!

Ben Petiprin

Sun, May 27, 2012 : 7:28 p.m.

I don't have any objections to the device itself, but I do take issue with them trying to make it mandatory. I like to drive because it gives me a certain amount of freedom. Before anyone says anything, I'm sure it will be able to take me wherever I need to go. But will I be able to take the scenic route, or stop at the sights along my trip. Even if it follows your commands perfectly it'd be like getting driven around by a cooperative parent, which is fine in a pinch but somewhat emasculating. It was a long time before I could drive, and I'd like to retain that right if at all possible.


Tue, May 29, 2012 : 10:30 a.m.

Yes, lets ban transponders from airplanes! That will free us all!


Mon, May 28, 2012 : 10:50 a.m.

Ben, this is the Nanny State on steroids and liberal Ann Arbor cannot enough of it.

Michigan Reader

Sun, May 27, 2012 : 5:51 p.m.

I wonder 1.) Will the devices in the roadways the cars interact with cause accidents if there's a power failure, even for a few moments? 2.) Will the new technology dramaticly raise car prices, (and repairs?)

Rita Mitchell

Sun, May 27, 2012 : 4:12 p.m.

The project appears to be one that will encourage continued and possibly expanded use of independent vehicles. It would be great if the same effort were applied to supporting improvements in mass transportation.

Atlas Shrugged

Mon, May 28, 2012 : 12:24 a.m.

The project would be great if it encouraged current drivers not to be morons who have few safe driving skills, and little or no apparent interest in learning them. Technology, applied well and thoughtfully, is wonderful. However, in this case and at this early time, I think it will merely give drivers the opportunity to stop thinking (as if many ever started), and reacting properly, and just let the vehicle do it all. And with computer-controlled cars, what a great excuse to drink, smoke, put on make-up, read, text, or talk on the cell phone while driving. Why bother paying attention and being in control when the car will take care of everything? Or not.


Sun, May 27, 2012 : 3:37 p.m.

This is folly! A complete waste of taxpayer money. No wonder this country is broke. If this is such a great idea the car companies will invest in it. Obama candy for all!


Mon, May 28, 2012 : 10:48 a.m.

Julie: That is exactly what I am saying. There is no reason for "our money" to be used on this. Read your constitution and show me where the fed government can spend money in this manner.


Sun, May 27, 2012 : 8:37 p.m.

Are you saying President Obama will GIVE us this technology? Everything is a partisan issue.

Atlas Shrugged

Sun, May 27, 2012 : 3:05 p.m.

Let's make these vehicles as "smart" as most Ann Arbor drivers: Deactivate the turn signals, and have the brake pedal merely sound the vehicle's horn. And let's find a way that the vehicle can read a pedestrian's mind and be able to deduce with 100% certainty that he (oops, meant (s)he, he/she, she/he, or whatever the PC lingo around here is) actually intends to cross the street, even though they may be 20 feet away from the road and merely approaching it. Finally, enable an immediate and total engine shut-down if the vehicle senses a bicyclist within a 50 foot radius, especially at intersections.

Dug Song

Sun, May 27, 2012 : 2:43 p.m.

This is a fine project, but such projects alone won't get it done. We've had plenty of projects here of similar import/scale, as Silicon Valley did historically - see Steve Blank's wonderful secret (military-industrial) history of Silicon Valley: The difference is really culture. You can argue about how we got here, but the prevailing business culture here (University, SPARK, auto industry, etc.) is slow, siloed, and bureaucratic because it is of, by, and for institutions, not people. As Paul Graham says, "Bureaucrats by their nature are the exact opposite sort of people from startup investors" [1], and until we see entrepreneurs and investors step up to lead, we won't have a truly entrepreneurial community that can drive, and not just weather, disruptive technical innovation. Entrepreneurial communities must be led by entrepreneurs. [2] The danger is that these kinds of projects find the research money to be developed here, but commercialized in California, with our talent and economic opportunity sucked away at a moment's notice. These kind of opportunities are at risk because the people behind them are rootless - think about why that is! [1] [2]

Paul Bellefleur

Tue, May 29, 2012 : 10:16 a.m.

I couldn't agree more. I've been trying to schedule a meeting with my congressman about infrastructure spending and shifting the paradaigm towards these and other technologies, but he won't meet with me. I wonder if there shouldn't be an easy to reach ombudsman of some kind...


Sun, May 27, 2012 : 2:31 p.m.

Here's a silly question - are there any potential safety risks with this "experiment"? Could malfunctioning of any of the components create an increased likelihood of a crash?


Tue, May 29, 2012 : 10:22 a.m.

Not likely.

Basic Bob

Mon, May 28, 2012 : 2:28 p.m.

Or it could be like an FDA drug trial. Risks and failures can be blamed on non-test vehicles, pedestrians, and improper lane marking. This is not so much experiment as test marketing.

Atlas Shrugged

Mon, May 28, 2012 : 12:29 a.m.

Not a silly question at all. I'll bet my best body part that there could be (indeed, will be) one or more component malfunctions. What we really need to know for now is whether your lawyer or insurance company sues the driver, the car or software manufacturer, or the agencies who approved this little experiment. Or all of the above.

Paul Wiener

Sun, May 27, 2012 : 2:05 p.m.

Gosh, isn't technology great! Will smart cars benefit Ann Arbor because there are so few smart drivers, smart pedestrians, bike riders, road planners, street repair workers, city planners and builders living here? I'd have thought transportation in Ann Arbor was already in an experimental stage from which it will never emerge. But no, we must look forward fearlessly to being unwilling experimental subjects even more than we are. Won't it be great to contemplate a future in which accidents never happen, insurance isn't required, and lawyers and insurance companies won't get rich when some smart car backs over a child, or a dog, or broadsides an ancient red-light-running Detroit chariot in a state that doesn't require car inspections? My own solution to Ann Arbor traffic? Build all the streets underground.

Federico de Arbor

Mon, May 28, 2012 : 12:11 p.m.

(Let's try this again...) Speaking of ancient chariots, how about using this technology to ferret out the "gross polluter" junkers spewing out clouds of toxic exhaust fumes. This would be a practical immediate green benefit of a "smart transportation" infrastructure.

Federico de Arbor

Mon, May 28, 2012 : 11:28 a.m.

Speaking of ancient chariots, ho

Joel A. Levitt

Sun, May 27, 2012 : 1:47 p.m.



Sun, May 27, 2012 : 1:30 p.m.

It is Carnegie Mellon University not Melon.

Kellie Woodhouse

Sun, May 27, 2012 : 2:17 p.m.

@skigirl: Thanks for catching that. Also, thanks for reading!


Sun, May 27, 2012 : 1:36 p.m.

Yes, Carnegie "Melon" is where you go to get your fruit doctorate.


Sun, May 27, 2012 : 1:29 p.m.

Michigan will never be silicon valley and that is ok. Michigan will be something different and just as good. If we can normalize labor and legacy costs, exploit the engineering talent and infrastructure in the area and above all keep Michigan a financially efficient place to run a business... I see only roses in our future. We just can't bow to special interests like public employees, labor unions etc. because that will drive the wealth generating forces out of the state.

Stuart Brown

Tue, May 29, 2012 : 5:38 a.m.

The premise that the main problem is that unskilled labor gets paid more than skilled labor is absurd. In general, this is not and never has been true with rare exception. This economy is telling many hard working people that they can't work, they're not needed and their only function is to terrorize the still working into being passive, submissive slaves. The janitor who makes six figures works about 3000 hours a year because the company would rather pay overtime than hire an additional worker. The entire premise of this discussion is offensive! The claim is that people who engage in productive labor are selfish, lazy and want too much. What planet does the author of this claim live on? The planet I live on has been taken over by predatory, crony capitalists who have become increasingly skilled at extracting money out of hard working people while reducing the quality of the product delivered. The financial system increasingly rewards the well connected at the expense of hard working people. The median income in this country has not increased in 30 years even though productivity is up substantially. There is plenty of entitlement in this economy at the very top, but no mention of this from our Ayn Rand disciples.


Tue, May 29, 2012 : 1:55 a.m.

Braggslaw, I look foward to the day this once great nation is a Marxist paradise where we all get to farm fields by hand in the morning and then have afternoon indoctrination classes.


Tue, May 29, 2012 : 1:42 a.m.

I give up. Let's continue to pay unskilled labor more than people who have rare skills that help drive the economy. I look forward to being Cuba, North Korea, Greece, Spain, Italy etc. Entitlement is a disease.


Tue, May 29, 2012 : 1:39 a.m.

Stuart, you sound like a resident of Camp Take Notice.

Stuart Brown

Mon, May 28, 2012 : 9:15 p.m.

braggslaw, Your company cannot find qualified people because yours and and other companies laid off a number of qualified people in the 2008-2009 period. Also, your company and others do not want to spend a dime on training or mentoring and expect engineers to train themselves. The shortage was foreseeable and preventible if not for the short term focus on quarterly profits. Don't blame workers for the bad decisions of management.!


Mon, May 28, 2012 : 1:49 p.m.

If you are a graduating engineer froma big 10 school you probably have 5-6 offers. If you are a graduating accountant you probably have a similar number of offers. My company cannot find qualified people. That is the reality fo the market There are millions of unfilled jobs because people don't have the skills.

Stuart Brown

Mon, May 28, 2012 : 6:02 a.m.

More conventional wisdom from that fountain of conventional wisdom: "lower wages equal higher living standards!" Guess what, engineers are not better off now that two tier has given us starting wages of $14 an hour for line workers. How many engineers have been laid off since 2008? At least the janitor making over $100k per year actually did something as opposed to the CEO who did what?


Mon, May 28, 2012 : 1:59 a.m.

I guess my definition of earning something is different than yours. It is NOT: 1. Striking 2. Complaining 3. Arguing that you are entitled to something. It is 1. Market based....on job skills 2. based on creating your own business.


Sun, May 27, 2012 : 11:57 p.m.

"Most of the people I know who have money worked for it........ they attained skills that nobody else had, they took the time to plan their monetary futures..." Same with me, and now it is being taken away from them.


Sun, May 27, 2012 : 11:56 p.m.

Hhhhhm. I had previously mentioned, in response to a different article, that a new hire at the Ann Arbor Fire Department would be making only a couple more dollars an hour than my teenage children were making at their summer/part-time jobs: A new firefighter will make a little more than $14.00 an hour, and my children are making over $12.00 an hour. I noted how sad I thought that was and a frequent commenter (Snoopdog, I believe) said that he "smelled a rat" - Ironically, as incredulous as I was over this observation. Now I'm reading that "janitors" were making six figures, and earning more than an engineer and nobody "smells a rat". Upon closer inspection of the comment, I see that the pay of a brand new, no-experience engineer may have been less than a "janitor" who had worked there for decades. I wonder how quickly that engineer's pay rate escalated. My example of the firefigher and summer/part-time jobs are comparing new, inexperienced (although the firefighter probably has some training) workers to each other in 2012. Not new, inexperienced (quickly promoted) engineers, to someone who has worked decades (and extra hours) in the 1980s. It's these kinds of comparisons that are disingenuous.


Sun, May 27, 2012 : 8:35 p.m.

Billy Bob, One of the biggest crimes in the auto industry was paying a person working an unskilled job more than an engineer. Yes, this was the norm in the eighties. I knew of janitors making six figures in certain plants due to seniority. We can argue what the word "deserve" means but in most other places in the united states combustion engineers were making more than janitors. Most of the people I know who have money worked for it. They started their own businesses, they attained skills that nobody else had, they took the time to plan their monetary futures...


Sun, May 27, 2012 : 6:05 p.m.

Well Billy Bob, the people with "lots of money", also known as the rich, use their money to buy and invest in new businesses, especually if there is a little thing called profit involved. Meanwhile, the unions figure out wqys for their employees to get paid more for less work and when they do not get their way, stage strikes and shut down said businesses.

Billy Bob Schwartz

Sun, May 27, 2012 : 5:58 p.m.

In the special interest category, you forgot the people with lots of money. You don't think they need normalizing??


Sun, May 27, 2012 : 12:24 p.m.

I must assume these people have never driven a real car in ann arbor or any other place for that matter at least other than maybe 3 don't need warning devices ( as If anyone would hear or see them between cell phone calls, texting, eating or one of a dozen normal driving distractions ) while your stuck in grid lock...the reality and the fantisy are miles ( no pun intended ) a lot of ideas , look good on paper but in reality just another $$$$ black hole....


Sun, May 27, 2012 : 12:19 p.m.

If it becomes mandated who is going to pay for devices which (I can only assume) will cost several hundred dollars? Is the installation free? If so, will taxes go up? Smart meters and smart cars. Seems the only thing stupid these days is people.


Sun, May 27, 2012 : 8:43 p.m.

Would you consider yourself one of the "people"?


Sun, May 27, 2012 : 12:18 p.m.

That would be great! Maybe the computers can get Ann Arbor residents out of the left lane of 94, when the computer sees, that there is 10 vehicles behind them- wanting to go faster! LOL!

Amber Wang

Sun, May 27, 2012 : 12:14 p.m.

It's too early to speculate. As a member of this great community, I do however want the best for Ann Arbor.

Linda Peck

Sun, May 27, 2012 : 11:50 a.m.

Interesting article. I wonder if streets are being redesigned to accommodate the space needed for such an experiment?


Sun, May 27, 2012 : 1:23 p.m.

No way, now that we have got the underground parking structure, remove all the on street parking downtown and add bicycle lanes.....sounds good to me.


Sun, May 27, 2012 : 1:12 p.m.

They could always repave everything and remove the bike lanes.

Duc d'Escargot

Sun, May 27, 2012 : 11:19 a.m.

Geez, doesn't even have a basic spell-check function?