f you’re a typical American commuter you spend about 250 hours per year inside your car. That’s more than six 40-hour working weeks. Imagine if your car could handle some of that driving for you, help you park, pay tolls, avoid bad traffic, or even brake to avoid an accident. That future is approaching fast and not a moment too soon: There are more than a billion cars and trucks on the road around the world, a proliferation of traffic that’s clogging streets, causing accidents, and spewing ever-increasing amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere.

Cars are getting smarter and more communicative already, thanks to advances in sensor technology, big-data analytics, and digital communication. According to a 2014 report by Allied Market Research, the global market for “connected cars”—vehicles equipped with sensor, GPS, Internet, and Bluetooth technology—will grow from about $35 billion today to $141 billion by 2020, and that number is expected to continue rising.

“Just as with smartphones, connectivity really opens up a whole new world of features, conveniences and functions,” says Doug Newcomb, president of C3 Group, which hosts the annual Connected Car Conference. Beyond incorporating the features of smartphones and feeding out data on engine performance, cars of the future will be able to communicate with one another, with pedestrians and cyclists, and with the infrastructure of the roadway—and it’s this much deeper connectivity that is expected to transform the experience of driving, increase safety, and spur a larger revolution in how we get around.

Given that there are an average of 20,000 components in the 2015 automobile—most of them potential sources of data—software, data analytics, and digital technologies are becoming as crucial to car design as engines and interiors. “You can’t have a connected car without a data connection,” says Newcomb, “so you have software and tech companies really starting to ramp up in this space.”

Hitachi is among the companies that have become laser-focused on creating new technologies for next-gen cars, including tools that assist autonomous vehicles in parking, lane changing, and braking, as well as analytics that can help carmakers measure wear and tear and alert car-owners of the need for preventive maintenance. While there is a great deal of buzz around “self-driving cars,” companies are also investing heavily in interim technology that allows vehicles to talk to each other and their surrounding infrastructure. “While everyone is talking about automated vehicles, we want to talk about connected automated vehicles,” says Harsha Badarinarayan, Ph.D., laboratory manager for Hitachi America’s Automotive Products Research Lab. Advanced automotive technologies like these are part of Hitachi’s broader focus on Social Innovation created through merging advanced IT and social infrastructure systems.

Key developments in that field are underway at Mcity, the world’s first connected and driverless car testing facility, on the campus of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Built as a site for testing out the most futuristic innovations in car design, Mcity features highway as well as rural and downtown driving conditions. New features being tested there include a way for cars to “see” around blind corners, to brake automatically for careless pedestrians, and to hunt for available parking spots.

“We can test so many scenarios,” says Carrie Morton, managing director of the Mobility Transformation Center, which designed Mcity. Of particular interest to Morton’s team is real-time communication between cars and traffic lights. “Imagine an emergency vehicle such as an ambulance communicating with the traffic signal network,” she says. “We could turn all the lights green for the emergency vehicles, while alerting all the other connected vehicles in the area.”

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A laboratory for the future of traffic in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Mcity is where auto companies go to test new driving technologies.

In coming years, we will be hailing driverless cabs, hopping onto driverless public buses, and pressing a button in the family car that will tell it to drive us home. That time will only come, however, if today’s experimental “self-driving” cars are tested and retested by the wide array of road conditions and real-world scenarios they are bound to encounter, whether driving through heavy weather or navigating the narrow streets of a crowded European city or avoiding careless pedestrians.

The Mcity testing facility in Ann Arbor, Michigan, is designed to do just that. The 32-acre highway and urban driving environment is packed with common and not-so-common obstacles—from tunnels and train tracks to construction and cyclists. “We have all of the accouterments that a normal city and highway road environment would have,” says Carrie Morton, managing director of the University of Michigan Mobility Transformation Center, which developed the facility and does testing there for clients and for its own purposes. “We have that 3D dimension, if you will.”

The Mcity environment can be adapted to every sort of driving condition. The downtown “buildings” are actually facades that can be moved closer to the road to simulate the tight fit of older cities, for example, and about a dozen different types of lighting are available to tests cars’ ability to “see” and recognize objects. “We want to expose these vehicles to the real-world scenarios that they’re going to be experiencing,” says Morton. “They’re not going to encounter these scenarios on a typical test track.”

This unique testing environment holds another key benefit for technology builders such as Hitachi, which is using the facility to pilot automated lane-changing and advanced safety systems, among other new products. Mcity offers such innovators priceless feedback from their main customer base, a large portion of which is just a short drive away: the automobile industry.

overnment at every level is also pushing for the future of connected cars, seeing them as key to cutting down on highway fatalities, fuel emissions, and traffic congestion. In Europe, every automobile launched in 2018 and after will be required to have a SIM card to communicate with first responders. And in the U.S., where almost 34,000 people die every year in traffic accidents, a mandate for manufacturers to build in car-to-car warning systems will go up for review later this year.

The U.S. Department of Transportation is also funding a pilot program in New York City, where vehicles seriously injure or kill someone every two hours, to put vehicle-to-vehicle technology into taxis, buses, and delivery trucks. The D.O.T. says such a measure could cut down on the unimpaired-vehicle crash rate by 80% nationwide.

While the New York City program is in its first year, the city’s deputy commissioner of traffic operations, Steven Galgano, says he can already imagine “a big expansion in the type of connected vehicle infrastructure around the country involving the pedestrians, bicyclists, and the visually impaired.”

As the world becomes more connected, it’s transforming not just the cars we drive but also how we travel. Technology-based ride- and bike-sharing programs, car-hailing apps such as Uber, Gett, and Lyft, and apps for real-time updates on subways and bus schedules are already common, and while cars are getting smarter, city managers and urban planners see a future of multiple travel options that are safer and more environmentally friendly than the current system.    

Even the major automakers are pushing this future. Ford, for example, is developing its own Uber-like app and has piloted a car-sharing program in Germany. A growing number of vehicles, like the BMW i3 electric car, are outfitted with multimodal functions that direct drivers to the shortest and most eco-friendly route, sometimes even one that doesn’t involve driving at all.

But when driving is still a necessary part of the everyday commute, cars that can communicate—with each other, with the road, with the driver—are set to become part of a safer, more connected future.  Soon enough, the commute may even serve as a time to relax, as self-driving technology allows us to worry a little less about taking the wheel.

To learn more about Hitachi Social Innovation, visit http://social-innovation.hitachi.com/.​

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