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In August 2006, Roger Curtis was two months into his job as head of the Michigan International Speedway and sitting in a helicopter hovering over the racetrack's parking lot. Nascar fans trying to exit had created a five-hour traffic jam that snarled below him. Curtis worked with state transportation officials to add lanes and change the flow of traffic, ultimately cutting the delay to 1.5 hours in time for the following race season.
Curtis, 44, now wants to turn the speedway into a test bed for transport innovation. The next generation of roads and automobiles will be more intelligent, talking to each other and wireless-data networks to help keep people safe and traffic flowing smoothly. A smart intersection, for instance, might be able to detect a vehicle about to run a red light and warn other cars, preventing collisions.
Such smart systems must work with all kinds of autos from different manufacturers, so Curtis says they'll need a neutral site for planning and testing, and that the 1,400-acre speedway is ideal. The site has 7.8 miles of roadways that go mostly unused outside Nascar season, 26 miles of fiber-optic cable to pipe in high-speed Net, and Wi-Fi. Curtis is also developing movable intersections so researchers can simulate various driving conditions, including rural highways and busy urban grids.
The site in Brooklyn, Mich., about 100 miles west of Detroit, has already hosted a handful of tests, giving the speedway a new income source. The U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research, Development, and Engineering Center conducted a four-day experiment using intelligent systems to guide convoys. Five carmakers have looked over the property, and two may be back this year to test smart systems, says Curtis, though he wouldn't identify the companies. The racetrack also has hosted emissions-related research, including final tests for the Progressive Automotive XPrize, which awarded $10 million to teams that built a vehicle capable of achieving 100 miles per gallon. "We're on the map now," says Curtis.
Richard Wallace, a director at the Ann Arbor (Mich.) Center for Automotive Research who specializes in intelligent vehicle communications, says that "having a test facility like this is very valuable. These systems all have to be able to talk to each other."
Curtis says his position in auto innovation is an unlikely one. For most of his 18 years in motor sports administration, he focused on marketing, which is what the Terre Haute native studied at Indiana State University. He hopes opening the speedway to researchers is one way to persuade auto companies to keep their research and development spending in Michigan, his adopted state. "When the time comes for the floodgate for really testing connected vehicles and connected roadways, we'd like to be sure that it's done right here."
Unsnarling a five-hour traffic jam
The speedway has 7.8 miles of roads and strong Wi-Fi
The U.S. Army's tank researchers tested intelligent convoys