By 2021, Ann Arbor could become the first American city with a fleet of networked, driverless vehicles on its streets. That’s a key goal of the Mobility Transformation Center (MTC), a cross-campus University of Michigan initiative that also involves government and industry partners.

The state of Michigan is now getting in on the act by forging a partnership between the state and the MTC. Announced during last month’s North American International Auto Show by Gov. Rick Snyder, the partnership is intended to help Michigan companies and universities maintain their lead in intelligent, connected vehicle programs and driverless cars.

Michigan’s automotive future is as important as its historic past, and it is just as bright,” Snyder said in a release. “By working together with great partners in education and the auto industry, we are strengthening our lead as the world headquarters for auto manufacturing and research and development.”

Autonomous vehicles could change how people and goods move around in a way that the auto industry hasn’t seen since its inception, researchers say.

“We’ve now entered into a period where the technology and the business models are coming together to allow us to break out of this 100-year dependence on what we’ve always known,” said Larry Burns, a professor of practice at Michigan Engineering and former head of research and development for General Motors.

For self-driving vehicles to become a reality, though, they have to be at the center of a reimagined transportation system in which vehicles are networked and shared. Simply replacing conventional models with driverless ones won’t achieve the maximum benefits, Burns says.

Through the Mobility Transformation Center, U-M is working toward this goal.

U-M researchers are in the midst of the nation’s largest street-level connected vehicle experiment, called Safety Pilot Model Deployment. With funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation, researchers have outfitted nearly 3,000 private cars, trucks and buses in Ann Arbor with wireless devices to communicate information that can alert drivers in potential crash situations to each other as well as to similar devices located at intersections, curves, and freeway sites in the area. Data gathered from this pilot project will be used in making future U.S. Department of Transportation policy decisions.

And in October, U-M regents approved plans for a one-of-a-kind off-road test environment for connected and automated vehicles and systems on the university’s North Campus. The 30-acre, $6.5 million facility — a joint project with the Michigan Department of Transportation — will simulate a dynamic cityscape where researchers can test how the vehicles perform in complex urban settings with roads, intersections, traffic signs and signals, sidewalks, benches, simulated buildings street lights, and obstacles such as construction barriers. Current plans call for the facility be completed by the fall of 2014.

The university’s work will be made easier by a new state law that allows the testing of automated vehicles on roads in the state. The legislation was sponsored by state Sen. Mike Kowall, R-White Lake.

U-M established the Michigan Mobility Transformation Center as a partnership with government and industry to dramatically improve the safety, sustainability and accessibility of ways that people and goods move from place to place in our society.

“Rapid advances in such diverse areas as connected vehicle systems, driverless vehicles, shared vehicles and advanced propulsion systems have brought us to the cusp of a revolution that will transform mobility worldwide,” said Professor Stephen Forrest, former vice president for research who helped launch the MTC last April.

“The goal of the MTC is to draw on U-M’s broad strengths in engineering, urban planning, energy technology, information technology, policy and social sciences to accelerate progress toward a working system that synthesizes these continuing advances.”

According to Peter Sweatman, director of the U-M Transportation Research Institute and director of the new center, emerging technological advances could bring substantial benefits to society.

“Integrating the most promising approaches to mobility into a coordinated system could reduce motor vehicle fatalities and injuries as well as energy consumption and carbon emissions by as much as a factor of 10,” Sweatman said. “We also estimate that freight transportation costs could be cut by a factor of three, and the need for parking could go down by a factor of three.”

“This project has made the Ann Arbor community a unique, real-time, on-road test bed for exploring the potential of connected vehicles and vehicle systems,” Sweatman said. “A number of industry participants are making use of this resource to explore the potential for their businesses as well.”

In addition to expanding the Safety Pilot and working on a fully connected and automated deployment in the Ann Arbor area, the MTC will collaborate with MDOT to connect the freeway systems in southeast Michigan, and recruit at least 20,000 corporate and government-owned fleets, including heavy trucks, to test selected vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure functions.

Research conducted under the auspices of the MTC will not just focus on emerging technologies, Forrest said.

“Some of the biggest challenges we face are not technical,” he said. “There are many social, political, regulatory and economic issues that must be addressed in order to realize the promise of technological advances. With our acknowledged strengths in these areas, and our culture of interdisciplinary cooperation, U-M is uniquely suited to address the full complexity of the challenges ahead.”