Other vehicle interaction systems are in development, and what is learnt in this huge, real world, experiment will help inform the direction they take.
“This is fundamentally aimed at safety, but clearly with a platform like this you can create many other applications,” says Dr Sweatman. “There are many other potential benefits in mobility, environment, emissions, energy efficiency.”
For example, the team envisages a system that monitors the brakes of all of the cars. If the traffic management system detects that all of the cars are braking at the same spot, it could indicate a problem with the road that needs to be fixed by a maintenance crew
Alternatively, if for some reason there was an accident, the system could be used to immediately alert the emergency services, divert other drivers to alternative routes and ensure that the roads are clear for emergency vehicles.
Currently, the majority of the cars fitted with the technology are owned by residents of Ann Arbor, who have volunteered to join the programme. People take their cars in, just like a service visit at a dealership. It takes less than an hour to install the two antennas for GPS, one antenna for communications, the driver interface, and a black-box computer to link it all together.
So far, about two thirds of the drivers selected to take part in the trial are parents from Ann Arbor schools. They were deliberately chosen to ensure there are as many vehicle “interactions” as possible, because they tend to drive their kids around a lot, and tend to congregate in the same places. More than 60 vehicles, including buses and trucks, have also been donated by various car manufacturers.
“We believe that at any given time there will be 5 to 10% of these vehicles in the traffic stream,” says Dr Sweatman.
However, this number could rise dramatically if the trial – which is currently due to run until 2013 – is successful. Then, the technology could be rolled out globally. With the ability to save thousands – perhaps millions - of lives, and reduce congestion and pollution at the same time, Ann Arbor could be the blueprint for the future.