ANN ARBOR, Mich.—"This curve here, you wouldn't think much of it," Debra Bezzina is saying, "but somebody was killed here two years ago, and they didn't even find him right away." Our van, driven by Bezzina's University of Michigan colleague Rick Byrd, is coming up on a curve that indeed looks relatively benign, even in this icy January weather. But Bezzina shares the story of the man who took the curve too quickly and skidded off the road. He wasn't the first to do so.
I brace myself as we approach, and something unusual happens: an alarm sounds from the dashboard, and an alert flashes in a corner of the rearview mirror. I realize the mirror doubles as a heads-up display — it shows a right-turn arrow against a blue background that suddenly turns red to warn of danger. Byrd, at the wheel, slows down.
What had just happened was both simple and profound, and people like Bezzina and Byrd, employees of the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI or "um-tree" for short), say it could transform the way American drivers experience their commutes. The van in which we're driving — an UMTRI van with a splashy yellow decal that reads "Connecting the Future" — has been equipped with technology to alert its driver in a range of situations. In this case, a piece of roadside equipment nearby was broadcasting to vehicles like ours the speed at which to safely take the coming turn. A router-like device in the van caught the signal, noted that the van was at risk, and issued the alert we just heard.