Prometheus Borealis car driving down a road.

Autonomous and Intelligent Systems

By Land or By Sea: The Unstructured Environment

Perhaps no products of the 21st century are more relevant to Michigan and the Great Lakes region than autonomous vehicles and vessels.

The Ford Motor Company recently pledged to have a fully functional self-driving car on the road by 2021, and at a 2017 Investor Day presentation, General Motors made it clear it was going “all in” on autonomous vehicles. The automotive industry expects 152 million actively connected cars on the road by 2025, each producing an average of up to 30 terabytes of data every day.

And while the car in your garage still needs a human at the wheel, no matter if it’s new or late model, it’s likely connected: GPS navigation, the infotainment panel, the wireless network your car creates—they’re all ways your car provides information, whether it’s to give you directions, ping other vehicles, or check in with infrastructure like traffic signals, signs, or bridges.

Autonomy isn’t limited to land alone. Out on the water at Michigan Tech’s Marine Autonomy Research Site (MARS), industry, governments, and foundations are investing in autonomous vessel research to improve efficiency, safety, and sustainability—economic, ecological, and social—for maritime travel and transport. MARS is the first freshwater testbed of its kind in the world.

Beyond the traffic signs, outside the yellow lines, autonomy at the ends of the Earth—Michigan Tech excels in unstructured environments.

Innovations in autonomy for vehicles and vessels are a harbinger of disruption across a wide range of industries, including many if not most of the industries in Michigan. They’re also a source of concern for the average citizen.

“People are rightly concerned about the ethical and social impacts of automation and the construction of intelligent systems,” says Michael Bowler, associate professor of philosophy and associate chair of Michigan Tech’s Department of Humanities. “Engineering and perfecting these systems in dirty and dangerous environments—like extreme weather conditions and off-road settings—is precisely the right way to explore and demonstrate to the public the capabilities of automated and intelligent systems in a safe context.”

Unstructured environments are the gray zones of mobility. It’s where chaos enters the picture. Michigan Tech is located in a remote, snowy region in the Upper Peninsula—our community regularly navigates chaos and less structured spaces, and to some extent, that carries over into our research.

As a key research area that spans civil engineering, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, computer science, cognitive science, and many more, mobility needs more than traditional paths to move the field forward. Whether under water or on the road, Michigan Tech takes autonomy to the ends of the Earth.

Autonomous underwater vehicle under the water.
Michigan Tech’s autonomous underwater vehicle IVER-3 is the first of the third generation sold to anyone outside the military. The torpedo-shaped robot imaged two previously unknown shipwrecks in the Great Lakes last year.

Michigan Mobility

The multidisciplinary Keweenaw Research Center (KRC) maintains more than 900 acres of proving grounds, specifically developed for the evaluation of ground vehicle systems. Originally established by the US Army for deep snow mobility testing, KRC has been involved in military, industrial, and commercial vehicle applications for more than 60 years.

One day soon cars will talk to traffic signals—and the stoplight will talk back. It’s one step towards more widespread connected and autonomous vehicles.

Our engineers worked with the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) to bring this technology to the Upper Peninsula. Five upgraded traffic signals in Houghton provide a local corridor where engineers can safely study vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) technology and communication. At the Advanced Power Systems Laboratories (APS LABS), engineers like Director Jeff Naber work with a fleet of Chevy’s hybrid-electric vehicles.

Aerial view of the test track in winter.
Mobility: The movement of people, goods, and information. We specialize in mobility within unstructured environments where combat, snowstorms, hackable code, and rural roads push up-and-coming vehicle technologies to their limits.

“The Volt has one of the most complex drive systems of any vehicle today—with an internal combustion engine and two electrical motors,” Naber says, adding that his team equips the car with sensors, software, and a few other improvements. “These seamless technologies will operate without the driver being aware of what’s happening under the hood.”

The car is one of eight in the APS LABS fleet and is part of a project funded by the US Department of Energy’s ARPA-E NEXTCAR program that seeks to reduce fuel consumption and increase electrical range through connected and automated technologies. The APS LABS team has worked with other university engineers and scientists, demonstrating that optimized vehicle powertrain control, enabled with vehicle connectivity, can reduce fuel energy by more than 20 percent and increase the electric vehicle range by more than 6 percent.

Next door to the APS LABS, is the winter test track and military vehicle proving grounds at the KRC. The KRC is now a PlanetM testing facility partner and the engineering teams work extensively with military and industry partners to vet new vehicle technologies designed for off-road and dangerous conditions. This kind of engineering is what Jeremy Bos, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, calls “autonomy at the ends of the Earth.”

“The same way more information helps you make a decision, more information can help your car make decisions.”

Jeff Naber portrait.
Jeff Naber
Director of the Advanced Power Systems Laboratory (APS LABS)

And the research here has global impact. Bos points to data from the World Health Organization that of the 1.3 million car crashes each year, 93 percent of them are caused by human error. Autonomous and connected vehicles may be able to mitigate up to 80 percent of those crashes. Bos says that can happen when vehicles talk to each other, light posts, traffic signals, bikers via cell phones and other roadside units. This connected world is vehicle-to-everything (V2X) technology.

“To have ubiquitous autonomous vehicles, V2X is necessary,” he says. “If an autonomous vehicle needs to assess a traffic light, it’s easier if the signal says what it is and when it will change. It minimizes risk.”

Pushing connected and autonomous vehicle technology to the limits will improve the everyday uses of vehicles. The ultimate goal of all autonomous tech is safety, explains Aurenice Oliveira, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, who studies the communication systems that power V2I and V2X technology.

“Connected vehicle safety applications reduce crashes by enabling drivers to have more awareness of hazards and situations they may not be able to see,” Oliveira says. “Moreover, connected vehicle technologies also have the potential to optimize traffic, reduce congested areas, and promote reduced fuel consumption.”

From test tracks to traffic signals, from powertrains to smart grids, mobility research demands interdisciplinary collaboration. Our engineers deliver the sensors, the data, the ethics to keep Michigan as the leading state in autonomy research.