Going Mobile: Leading the Way in Connected Vehicle Research and Planning

Ahmad Jawad is the ITS manager and a signal systems engineer for the Road Commission for Oakland County, which is conducting connected vehicle testing at Oakland County intersections. Photo by Brad Zeigler

By M.J. Galbraith

When it comes to the future of connected mobility, Oakland County is playing the long game.

It’s a measured approach to the exciting technology that links vehicles to each other and to the infrastructure upon which they rely. Imagine traffic signals that instantly adjust for traffic patterns or that change to give first-responder vehicles the right of way.

Oakland County has long been at the forefront of intelligent transportation systems. In 2014, the late County Executive L.

Brooks Patterson announced the formation of the Oakland County Connected Vehicle Task Force. Since then, the group has worked with companies in the county’s automotive technology corridor and other stakeholders to create a business model for investing in connected vehicle technology and infrastructure.

In fact, the county has been getting ready to commit to the technology required for communication between vehicles and other vehicles, and vehicles and surrounding infrastructure. It was at one point poised to begin deploying Dedicated Short-Range Communications (DSRC) technology, which allows rapid communications — up to 10 times per second — between elements of a connected vehicle network.

However, a second type of communications technology, Cellular Vehicle-to-Everything (C-V2X), has

been gaining popularity. C-V2X offers communications between vehicles and infrastructure and other road users and can function independently of cell networks.

As of late 2019, the county was waiting to see what technology would be adopted by the federal government, state government and automotive companies.

“It’s sort of a VHS versus Beta situation,” says Chris Olzem, senior business development representative for the Oakland County Department of Economic Development & Community Affairs. “We’re hesitant funding any project until we know which technology wins out.”

MOVING FORWARD

Meanwhile, the county continues to proceed with mobility initiatives. Tests underway at a couple dozen intersections throughout the county are among the first pilot projects in the United States, says Ahmad Jawad, ITS manager and signal systems engineer for the Road Commission for Oakland County.

The county is constantly looking at the latest technologies, and Jawad lists the Michigan Department of Transportation, original equipment manufacturers and Tier 1 suppliers as ongoing research project partners. The county’s door is always open to technology companies with ideas, too.

A conceptual rendering of a vehicle simulator that will be the focal point of operations at the new $7.8 million autonomous vehicle driving simulation center Multimatic is building in Novi. Photo courtesy of Multimatic

And there are plenty of them specializing in various aspects of mobility technology in Oakland County. Even auto technology companies with headquarters elsewhere look to set up research and development operations in the county to be where the action is.

Among recent developments, for example, Multimatic is investing $7.8 million to establish North America’s first autonomous vehicle driving simulation center in Novi. Called SimCenter, it will operate as an extension of the company’s driving simulators in Canada and England.

“Multimatic is optimistic about the growth and opportunity present in the southeast Michigan area,” Multimatic President and Chief Operating Officer Raj Nair said in a press release.

The timeline for full-scale adoption of smart infrastructure in Oakland County depends on both the federal government and the state. Jawad estimates that critical decisions by the government will help develop a guide for the county in the next few years.

Will it be DSRC? Will it be C-V2X? Perhaps a hybrid of the two? Or even some other technology yet to be announced? The county is acting with prudence.

“There’s no long-term usefulness in adopting technologies that will be obsolete very quickly,” Jawad says. “We’re still testing.

“A lot depends on the federal mandates that will shape the future of traffic infrastructure.”

FUNDING SAFETY

Emblematic of the long-time county executive, Patterson announced in 2017 that the connected autonomous vehicle network would come at no cost to Oakland County taxpayers.

Olzem is tasked with searching for ways to do just that.

A self-described numbers guy, Olzem says that the county is working with a Toronto firm to help find a business model that allows for the full-scale implementation of communications technology without putting the burden of cost on taxpayers.

Among the options? The county could sell off any excess bandwidth generated from the devices. Perhaps commuters could receive push notifications on their cellphones — a nearby Starbucks sending a coupon as a rider approaches, say. This system can provide priority to transit and emergency vehicles.

On the bright side, waiting for the technology to get sorted out allows the county time to get creative with funding proposals.

“We want to be smart about it, how we put everything into place,” Olzem says. “On the other hand, we want to get this going because it’s a safety issue.”

Jawad also emphasizes the safety aspect. While it’s important for the county to remain at the cutting edge of technology, and while it will benefit from the improved traffic flow that technology will bring, the most promising aspects of connected infrastructure and vehicles lie in issues of safety, he says.

As vehicles become able to communicate with other vehicles around them and traffic infrastructure, the likelihood of collisions decreases. Ambulances, fire trucks and police cruisers will all be able to better respond to emergencies, with signals stopping cross traffic so they can quickly and safely traverse intersections.

It’s the future of mobility. And Oakland County is busy preparing.

“It’s because of our policy that is focused on safety. Everything designed is focused on that,” Jawad says. “We want to be the global leaders in this as we’ve always been.”

This article originally appeared in the 2020 edition of Oakland County Prosper magazine.