Toyota Testing Car Connectivity in Ann Arbor

Toyota is teaming with the city of Ann Arbor to jump-start testing of the car connectivity system that the Japanese carmaker plans to deploy stateside in 2021.

A network of roadside sensors will communicate with specially outfitted cars to improve everything from safety to traffic flow. The expanding system, expected to be the world's largest connected-car test bed by the end of this year, is run by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute and builds on a network deployed in 2012. By year end, Ann Arbor will have 75 vehicle-to-infrastructure transmitter sites scattered among its streets and some 3,150 cars plugged in.

The expansive scope of the project is an unparalleled testing opportunity, said Hideki Hada, executive engineer at Toyota's technical strategy department for advanced safety.

"Even conservative Toyota became confident to move forward," Hada said in an interview. "It was in the research phase, but now it's in the realization phase."

Toyota Motor Corp., which is based in Japan and employs about 1,800 people at its U.S. r&d hub near Ann Arbor, aims to leverage the system to test its dedicated short-range connectivity, or DSRC, technology.

The company in April said it would deploy the systems in Lexus- and Toyota-brand vehicles in 2021 and spread them across most of their lineups by the mid-2020s.

Toyota has offered the technology on some models in Japan since 2015, under the name ITS Connect. More than 100,000 DSRC-equipped cars are on the road there.

Those systems add about $250 to the base price, Hada said.

Now, Toyota is inviting the r&d hub employees and their family members to install the DSRC systems in their personal cars and participate in the Ann Arbor pilot project.

The test isn't limited to Toyota. Four other automakers, suppliers, city-operated vehicle fleets, local taxi companies and the University of Michigan are joining the endeavor, said Debby Bezzina, senior program manager for the Ann Arbor Connected Vehicle Test Environment. She declined to name the other auto companies and suppliers taking part.

"It falls under the build-it-and-they-will-come model," Bezzina said. "We have significant usage of the environment, even now before it is fully deployed."

About 550 vehicles already are equipped with the system, and the total is expected to top 3,000 by year end. Volunteers are paid $40 to have their vehicle outfitted. The system includes a DSRC antenna and a global navigation satellite system antenna, along with a speaker and digital screen to communicate with the driver through tones, speech and signals.

DSRC systems use a dedicated 5.9 GHz radio bandwidth to allow cars to communicate with each other and with the infrastructure around them. They transmit much faster than today's 4G cellular links, enabling split-second reactions even at high speeds. And DSRC can transmit up to 300 meters and around corners, offering better visibility than most camera-based systems.

But to work, they require a network of DSRC boxes installed along roads and intersections.

DSRC suppliers include Southfield-based Lear Corp., Novi-based Danlaw Inc., Santa Clara, Calif.-based Savari Inc. and Aptiv PLC, the Ireland-based auto parts maker spun off by Delphi Automotive.

A demonstration this month for Automotive News at the University of Michigan's Mcity autonomous-driving proving ground highlighted some of the system's potential. The system can warn of:

  • Sharp curves, work zones or icy roads ahead
  • Sudden braking of cars farther down the road that are out of sight
  • Impending collisions
  • Objects such as cars or pedestrians hidden in blind spots.

Toyota is joined by General Motors Co. of Detroit in pioneering the deployment of DSRC technology. GM introduced a DSRC-based vehicle-to-vehicle system in the Cadillac CTS sedan in 2017.

Meanwhile, Ford Motor Co. of Dearborn and Germany's Volkswagen and BMW are exploring a competing technology based on next-generation 5G cellular networks.

Proponents of 5G systems say they will offer super-fast connectivity and a wider area of coverage through an upgrade of the existing cellular network.

But 5G has yet to commercially debut in consumer electronics, and the automotive rollout is expected to take even longer.

Toyota sees potential in 5G and also is researching that field, Hada said. But its engineers have been validating DSRC technology for years and see more immediate payoffs there.

Toyota sees DSRC as remaining relevant in car connectivity until around 2030, Hada said.

"Until it becomes reality, we cannot make a product," Hada said of 5G systems. "And DSRC, the one we have spent almost 10 years or more fully validating, it can be used for many years."