Mobility experts use new traffic signals in Houghton

One day soon cars will talk to traffic signals–and the stoplight will talk back. It’s one step towards more widespread connected and autonomous vehicles.

Researchers at Michigan Technological University worked with the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) to bring this technology to the Upper Peninsula. Five upgraded traffic signals in Houghton provide a local corridor where engineers can safely study vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) technology and communication. As more connected vehicles hit the roads in the next couple years, consumers will start to benefit as well.

LOCAL TRAFFIC

The five upgraded traffic signals in Houghton are located at M-26 at Sharon Avenue, Razorback Drive and Green Acres Road, and U.S. 41 at Isle Royale Street and MacInnes Drive. Aurenice Oliveira, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, works on the communication systems that connect V2I technology.

Aurenice Oliveira works at the interface of the two domains and she says the emerging technology has the power to reduce vehicle crashes by 80 percent.

“Connected vehicle safety applications reduce crashes by enabling drivers to have more awareness of hazards and situations they may not be able to see,” Oliveira says. “Moreover, connected vehicle technologies also have the potential to optimize traffic, reduce congested areas and promote reduced fuel consumption.”

Units like those in the new signals will allow field experiments to test algorithms that, so far, have only been used in simulations. The Michigan Tech vehicles used will not be fully autonomous–there will always be a driver on board with hands on the wheel–and the series of traffic signals provides a corridor to suss out the nitty gritty differences between lab models and real-world driving. But the technology as a whole is well on its way. MDOT policy is to include these kinds of upgrades on all new signal installations.

“This is the new standard for connected infrastructure that will be installed whenever MDOT modernizes signals,” explains Justin Junttila, regional traffic and systems operations specialist with MDOT. “It’s comparatively lower cost to do that instead of retrofitting.”

DRIVING ALONG INNOVATION SHORE

Mobility is the movement of people, goods and information. To move people and goods safely from one place to another, connected cars, and especially autonomous ones, rely on lots of information. Using onboard units these vehicles see, analyze and assess the surrounding environment; connected traffic signals outfitted with roadside units, which are short-range radio communications systems, provide additional feedback. Whether ice coats the road, a car ahead ran a red, or road work slows down traffic, key and timely information triggers in-vehicle alerts or how the car drives, depending on the level of autonomy. 

“The same way more information helps you make a decision, more information can help your car make decisions,” says Jeff Naber, director of the Advanced Power Systems Laboratory (APS LABS), who leads an ARPA-E NEXTCAR program, funded by the Department of Energy.

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