From tiny electric cars to smart intersections: Washtenaw County's latest mobility innovations

We spoke to the people behind three of Washtenaw County’s latest mobility projects about how they are using technology to change our mobility landscape.
With local operations like MCity, the American Center for Mobility, and May Mobility testing and deploying a variety of cutting-edge transportation technologies in Washtenaw County, mobility efforts have been flocking here to take advantage of academic resources, startup support networks, and proximity to Detroit’s automotive industry. 

Startup incubator Ann Arbor SPARK recently released the Regional Mobility Deployment Map, an interactive "story map" that shows over 230 mobility efforts currently being tested and deployed in the Washtenaw County area. Mobility, a term that has gained traction in recent years, refers to a wide range of transportation-related services and systems, from autonomous and electric vehicles to public transportation to maps and infrastructure. 

"It’s about moving people, moving goods, and moving less," says Komal Doshi, SPARK’s director of mobility programs. 

We spoke to the people behind three of Washtenaw County’s latest mobility projects about how they are using technology to change our mobility landscape.

Ann Arbor Public Schools’ electric school buses

In 2020, as part of a collaboration between DTE Energy, the Michigan Association for Pupil Transportation, Thomas Built Buses, the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI), and Proterra, Ann Arbor Public Schools (AAPS) deployed four fully electric Saf-T-Liner C2 Jouley buses to be tested alongside its regular fleet. 

The buses were partially funded by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) through the Volkswagen Beneficiary Mitigation Plan.

"Climate change is a serious concern," says AAPS director of communications Andrew Cluley. "Looking for a way to be more environmentally friendly and reduce emissions, we wanted to be right there finding out whether this would work."
An Ann Arbor Public Schools fully electric bus.
As part of the project, UMTRI will observe the buses for the next four years. Cluley says right now, pricing is one of the district’s main concerns with implementing electric buses, but one goal of the project is to determine long-term overall costs and savings.

Beyond efficiency, Cluley notes another immediate benefit of the electric buses is that they run more quietly. 

"It is a pretty stark difference from what I remember on school buses when I was a kid," he laughs.

Ann Arbor’s smart intersections

In another collaborative project, UMTRI has partnered with the city of Ann Arbor and several other organizations to test and eventually install 21 "smart intersections" that utilize cameras and sensors to collect and share real-time traffic information.

One immediate benefit of the sensors is that they can make autonomous vehicles much safer. 

"Autonomous vehicles’ onboard sensors sometimes have limitations because of their line of sight," says Henry Liu, director of the University of Michigan's (U-M) MCity autonomous vehicle testing facility. "If an autonomous vehicle is driving on the lane, but in front of that, there's a bus or truck blocking the line of sight while a pedestrian is walking across the intersection, the automated vehicle won't be able to see the pedestrian. Then that might resolve into an accident."

But the smart intersections would have a number of ways to detect the pedestrian and send that information to the vehicle through cameras, radar, and 3D laser "lidar" sensors.

"Those sensors can capture that type of information," says Liu. "They can tell the vehicle, ‘There is a potential danger. You need to pay attention to that.’"
Liu says the fisheye cameras used in the intersections will ensure that drivers’ privacy and personal information will be preserved. 

"We can tell, ‘That’s a vehicle,’ but we can’t tell a license plate or who is driving," he says.

The smart intersections may also be able to help with overall infrastructure and traffic flow by using machine learning to analyze accident-prone areas, control traffic patterns, and alert authorities when a crash has occurred.

"We can also identify those near misses at the interstate," Liu says. "So if we know the near misses, we can look at the root causes for these crashes so that we can propose and develop those mitigation strategies to improve the safety of these intersections."

The intersection technology is currently still in the testing phase at MCity’s "living lab" on the U-M campus, but Liu says the plan is to deploy it on Washtenaw Avenue and Platt Road by the time of the project’s estimated completion in 2024.

Nimbus’ ultra-compact electric cars

Local startup Nimbus is currently readying tiny three-wheeled electric cars, roughly the size of a motorbike, for a late June release. 

University of Michigan graduate Lihang Nong is the founder and CEO of Nimbus. He says he created the cars, which measure about seven and a half feet long by less than three feet wide, as a way to reduce emissions as well as traffic and parking congestion.

"It was really surprising to me when I looked into just how underutilized cars are and how big they are for these daily trips we take in the city," Nong says. U.S. Department of Transportation data show that almost 60% of all car trips are less than six miles.

Nong says it struck him how inefficient most large vehicles really are for these short drives. 
Nimbus founder and CEO Lihang Nong with a Nimbus prototype.
"Looking around at all the cars and how much space we have to sacrifice in cities in order to have enough room for parking and for driving around in cars, that didn't really make sense to me," he says.

The Nimbus, which fits two people in tandem, can charge at a typical electric vehicle charging station in just 45 minutes and has an estimated fuel efficiency of 370 miles per gallon equivalent. One standard parking space can fit four of the super-compact vehicles.

Although Nimbus has additional locations in California and China, Nong himself is based in Ann Arbor. 

"I think Michigan and Ann Arbor are really good places to recruit talented people from the automotive industry, and that’s part of why we’re based out here," says Nong. "But there are also other resources available to us here: things like the American Center for Mobility. There are also some grants and resources from places like SPARK that make it good for a company like us to be here."

Sabine Bickford Brown is a freelance writer and editor based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She can be reached at

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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