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The Michigan Department of Transportation has installed its first sets of sensors and cameras along 20 miles of Interstate 96 and I-696 in Metro Detroit that will be able to “talk” with certain cars to help drivers avoid construction, traffic and weather hazards.

The system is the first stage of what will become the longest stretch of technology-enabled “smart” roads in the country, and could be the next step toward self-driving cars.

It’s all part of MDOT’s connected-corridor initiative, which uses the latest vehicle and infrastructure technologies to create safer roadways. The department wants to deploy sensors along 50 miles of the expressways.

No cars in showrooms today can connect with the system, but the first car with that capability — the 2017 Cadillac CTS — already is in the pipeline. Other car companies partnering with MDOT, including Ford Motor Co., are working to equip future vehicles with the necessary technology.

The 17 sensors and cameras — 12 along I-96 and I-696 between Milford Road and Orchard Lake Road, and five at intersections just off the expressway — are small nondescript devices with antennas that have been installed on existing power poles and on top of stoplights.

They work by collecting information such as vehicle location, speed and driving habits from vehicles that connect to the network. That information is beamed to a virtual “warehouse” that analyzes and interprets the data into usable information and then shares it with connected vehicles on the roadway.

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There are a number of practical uses: If road repairs are in progress on a stretch of expressway, sensors can pick up the location and tell the driver that the left lane is closed 1,000 feet ahead. If cars are sliding on an icy stretch, the system can warn drivers and even alert MDOT that salt trucks should be dispatched.

Automakers, along with the University of Michigan, are working with MDOT on the project, which is being paid for by a combination of state and federal money.

“I don’t think right now we’re intending to mass-market to drivers to say, ‘Go ahead and use this,’ ” said Matt Smith, MDOT intelligent transportation systems program administrator, commenting on the current absence of cars and trucks to connect with the system.

“Our approach is to work with automotive companies, U-M, and partner up with companies that have large fleet vehicles to equip them.”

Smith said security is a major concern, and the partners are working to keep the sensors and connected vehicles safe. The system doesn’t keep track of personal information, and Smith said the system won’t cause a car to brake or accelerate.

Testing for the project is taking place at U-M’s Mcity, an automotive proving ground in Ann Arbor that’s aimed at helping Michigan take the lead in driverless-car technology. Mcity opened last month.

“Adding this technology on roads around southeast Michigan is important, especially since it’s the home of the auto industry,” said John Maddox, assistant director of the U-M Mobility Transformation Center, which operates Mcity.

Maddox said testing has been done at Mcity and along public streets in Ann Arbor. He said knowledge gained there will improve driver safety and save gasoline by helping pick the most efficient routes.

“It’s going to help move people and goods around southeast Michigan in the most efficient manner,” he said.

mmartinez@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2401

Twitter.com/MikeMartinez_DN

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