Since late August, Jean Knows Cars’ hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan, has been playing host to the largest ever study of connected vehicles--technology that lets cars interact with one another out on the road. The study, administered by the U.S. Department of Transportation and the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI), involves nearly 3,000 cars outfitted with special communication devices for research. The cars interact with one another and with signals posted permanently at intersections, on sharp curves, and on the M-14 and US-23 freeways. The study focuses on the northeast area of Ann Arbor, and participants will have the testing equipment installed in their cars over a twelve-month period. This connected vehicle study just got under way several weeks ago, part of a thirty-month overall research project. The UMTRI's director, Peter Sweatman, has said, “We feel honored to be hosting the national test environment for vehicles that don’t crash.”

Connected vehicles are getting more and more buzz lately, and for good reason. The UMTRI believes that the technology has the potential to reduce up to 80 percent of "unimpaired crashes," according to Francine Romine, director of communications at UMTRI. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that there are more than 10 million car crashes yearly on American roads. In 2009, the most recent year for which there's data, there were 10.8 million accidents.

Of the cars participating in the study, the vast majority--about 2,800--carry a Vehicle Awareness Device, or VAD, which emits a signal that can be picked up by similar devices in other cars. Only about 300 cars carry a device that can both send and receive signals. Drivers of those cars get warnings when they are following another study-equipped vehicle too closely, when they may need to brake unexpectedly, or when they are approaching a sharp curve, among other things. Jim Sayer, UMTRI’s project manager for the study, says "the real benefits will come from [devices] that both transmit and receive," but in order to get that data, the cars need a large pool of signals to react to.

David Cahill, pictured here, is one of the Ann Arborites who volunteered for the connected vehicle study, and he told Jean Knows Cars about his experience. The vehicle awareness device in his car is one of the transmit-only variety. He told us that, when the device was installed in early August, the other more advanced devices "were not yet ready or working." Although the study's piece of equipment equipment, a GPS antenna taped to his windshield and shown with this article, came unstuck the day after it was installed, UMTRI told him that signal transmission would not be interrupted, and they eventually repaired the device. Aside from that issue, Cahill says the device is "completely innocuous" and has not interfered with his driving at all.

Cahill became interested in the study after reading about it online. He says he is "really impressed with anything that will improve traffic safety and move toward automation," adding that he favors any technology that takes "second-to-second control of a two-ton vehicle" out of the hands of drivers.

At the end of the yearlong study, participants will receive $200. Cahill said this didn't have an impact on his choice to participate. An interesting angle the study organizers took was to recruit among parents in the Ann Arbor Public Schools in the northeast side of town being studied, with the $200 being donated to school at the end. Romine of UMTRI said the study considered stay-at-home parents ideal candidates because of the amount of time they spend driving in the study area. Romine noted that parents often travel "12,000 to 13,000 miles a year just driving their kids."

A few commercial vehicles have also been outfitted, and UMTRI's Sayer says there is the potential for applications to be developed that could help long-haul truck drivers to find places to park overnight. Those applications don’t exist yet, but researchers at UMTRI and other institutions are looking into developing them.

Many in the industry and elsewhere consider connected vehicles as a crucial steppingstone to autonomous cars, although there is no reliable estimate for when cars could kick humans out of the driver’s seat. Sayer, for his part, expects that "there will be radar-based wireless and vehicle-based systems for a long time" before the leap to automation.

If the idea of hooking your car up to a wireless network concerns you, rest assured that a lot of effort has gone into making sure the network is secure. When signing up for the study, Cahill was assured that all data gathered from him or his vehicle would be kept private.

Sayer says that privacy concerns are not the biggest issue, since many of the devices used in the study do not store data. Rather, the concern is that "someone could introduce some rogue signals" into the environment, which could cause the devices to behave erratically. Sayer says that both device manufacturers and the federal government have worked to make the system secure.

It will take time to hear about the results of the study. After collecting data from vehicles at several points throughout the year, UMTRI will send the data to the Department of Transportation for analysis. No matter what the results tell us about the future of driving and traffic safety, the study’s placement in Ann Arbor is meaningful to Michigan residents, who have faced years of hard times and doubts about the future of the auto industry in this state. Cahill says he is "delighted" that this largest-of-its-kind study has a home here.

And so are we! We will check back in on this study as the year progresses and bring you updates on how it's going.