Ahmad Jawad at the Road Commission of Oakland County.
Steve Koss Ahmad Jawad at the Road Commission of Oakland County.

Long before connected vehicles and connected infrastructure became buzzwords for the future of mobility, Oakland County was well along the path to change how commuters move through the state’s second-most populous county.

More than two decades ago, the Road Commission for Oakland County (RCOC) began installing a new traffic signal system along busy corridors to ease traffic flow during peak commuter hours. Known as the Sydney Coordinated Adaptive Traffic System (SCATS), the signals change or adapt based on traffic demand. Today, there are 825 adaptive traffic signals running on SCATS in the county – many of them along well-traveled thoroughfares including Big Beaver, Novi Road, Orchard Lake Road, Maple Road, 14 Mile Road, 13 Mile Road, Middlebelt, and Lahser.

“Oakland County is very much a commuter county. People come here to work,” says Ahmad Jawad, signal systems engineer and intelligent transportation system manager for RCOC. “Our population swells during the day and we were looking for ways to increase and decrease signal times based on demand. The traffic signals benefit commuters in peak hours but also during non-peak hours. You don’t have to wait at a signal if no one else is there.”

Ahmad Jawad at the Road Commission of Oakland County.
Ahmad Jawad at the Road Commission of Oakland County.

Those adaptive traffic signals were among the first innovative initiatives in the county’s march to embrace new technology to alleviate traffic congestion and improve driver safety.

Since then, RCOC has emerged as a leader among Michigan counties and in the nation. It’s gotten involved in numerous connected vehicle technology tests and deployments, and partnered with federal and state agencies, auto manufacturers, auto suppliers, and leading connected-vehicle companies.

“This has been a priority for the road commission,” Jawad says. “We’ve always been forward-thinking in terms of new research in this area. We were one of the first to have a traffic center for local government, a real-time traffic website, and we were one of the first to have the adaptive traffic signal system.”

Safety continues to be a priority for county officials, who oversee 5,600 miles of roads and 1,600 traffic signals.

“There are multiple levels to this sort of evolution,” Jawad says. “In the beginning, signals were a standalone system. Today we are tracking multiple systems. Automobiles are one system, infrastructure is another. We are trying to integrate these systems.”

The county took a major step in that direction five years ago with the formation of the Oakland County Connected Vehicle Task Force. The panel works with automotive technology companies and other stakeholders to create a business model for investing in connected vehicle technology and infrastructure. Oakland County and RCOC are partners on the project.

To that end, the county selected Toronto-based P3 Mobility to develop, plan, and implement a pilot program, as well as a longer-term solution, for connected vehicle infrastructure and to test its viability for public use and potential commercial application.

The plan was for the company to install wireless smart intersection technology at 10-12 intersections and research the user experience to better understand the optimal pricing of various road services and their projected income potential. The locations, installation dates, and cost of the project have yet to be determined.

Christopher W. Olzem, a senior business development representative with Oakland County Economic Development and Community Affairs, says the goal is to have a business model that can fund the deployment of that infrastructure.

“‘How do we pay for it?’ is the question,” he says. “What is the revenue stream that needs to be created to pay for it?”

Moving ahead with the project remains a priority, with safety a primary concern. In announcing P3 Mobility’s selection, county officials shared research from the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute that showed mandating connected vehicle technology today would prevent up to 8.1 million car crashes and 44,000 deaths a year in the United States.

“The safety of our drivers is our No. 1 concern,” Olzem says. “In 2016 there were over 37,000 deaths on the roads in the United States.”

In yet another measure to bolster road safety, the county last year installed seven road signs that use connected vehicle technology to communicate to vehicles.

3M technology embedded in the signs generates messages that enable connected and automated vehicles to react to obstacles ahead. The technology is not visible to the human eye and the signs look exactly like standard highway and roadway signs.

The signs have been placed along I-75, M-59, and Opdyke Road in Auburn Hills. That area was chosen because of freeway-to-freeway interchanges, traffic volumes, and proximity to major auto suppliers and advanced auto research and development operations.

“Oakland and Macomb counties are really leading the effort on a local level. Michigan as a whole is a national leader,” says Rob Morosi, a communication specialist with the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT). MDOT has been working with both counties on these infrastructure improvements.

Morosi says several factors have prompted advances in the region and the state, including legislation removing barriers for advanced testing on open roads. Michigan is also home to more than 100,000 engineers, the greatest concentration of engineering talent in the world. And state agencies are working closely together to ensure that partnerships develop, business attraction remains at the forefront, and next-generation R&D stays in Michigan.

Ahmad Jawad at the Road Commission of Oakland County.
Ahmad Jawad at the Road Commission of Oakland County.

While Oakland County is ahead of the curve, Jawad says the biggest changes are still yet to come.

“There is going to be a paradigm shift in all of these technologies,” Jawad says. “In about 10 years, there’ll be fully autonomous vehicles. As time progresses, autonomous vehicle and the connected vehicle industry will merge or converge. It’s the future.”