University of Michigan Opens 32-Acre Simulated City for Autonomous Vehicle Testing

This week, a brand-new city opened near Ann Arbor, Michigan, complete with it is own main-street, cafes, bars and shops. There are neat street signs, stop lights and even parking bays for the occasional quick errand.

It looks like any other city -- but MCity is a massive test-bed for self-driving cars.

It looks like any other city — but MCity is a massive test-bed for self-driving cars.

And like every city, there’s even the occasional unexpected drainage cover at just the wrong part of the crosswalk, ready to catch unsuspecting pedestrians and motorists out alike.

In the centre of the new city, there’s even a beautifully-designed traffic circle, bordering a massive piece of pavement art proudly displaying the University of Michigan’s official logo. Yet there’s one thing missing in Mcity, Michigan: residents.

That’s because the 32-acre city is in fact the U-M’s brand-new, state of the art outdoor research laboratory dedicated exclusively to the development of autonomous vehicles. Developed by U-M’s Mobility Transformation Centre — a private-public partnership run in partnership with the Michigan Department of Transportation — the facility will help some of the world’s biggest automakers to test and develop their own self-driving cars in a safe and controlled environment.

The U-M logo sits proudly in the middle of a traffic circle in the fake city.

The U-M logo sits proudly in the middle of a traffic circle in the fake city.

While it might seem counter-intuitive due to the speeds involved, it’s far harder for an autonomous vehicle to drive in an urban and suburban environment than it is on a high-speed road such as an Interstate.

That’s because cars travelling on a freeway tend to follow a much more rigid, more easily-anticipated pattern than cars in a busy city centre. In addition, there are less hazards from pedestrians and cyclists.

In addition, the much higher number of road signs, cross walks and intersections require autonomous cars process far more information than they would on a freeway.

It’s for this reason that U-M, with backing from the state DOT, has built such a realistic testing environment.

“We’ve been a world leader in innovation, especially in terms of mobility,” said Michigan Governor Rick Snyder. “We put the world on wheels. We transformed how the world moved. Michigan is uniquely positioned to continue to be a leader in mobility, and the University of Michigan’s new Mcity will play a critical role in that future.”

There are all sorts of different junctions covered by this 32-acre site.

There are all sorts of different junctions covered by this 32-acre site.

To ensure the cars being tested encounter as realistic a city as possible, Mcity includes many of the imperfections that you’ll find in any large city around the world, including faded line markers, graffiti, and defaced signs.

In an ideal world, where lane markings are crystal clear, autonomous vehicles have very problem navigating the urban environment — but as Tesla CEO Elon Musk detailed last week during a press call, faded lane markings can completely confuse an autonomous vehicle.

So too can tire marks left by burnouts or emergency braking.

At the moment, Michigan is home to more than 375 different automotive research centres, split between academic institutions, mainstream automakers, software companies and tier-one automotive parts suppliers. Many of them — through partnership with U-M — will be able to access the new test facility to refine their autonomous and auto-pilot systems.

The site is well-funded and will play home to plenty of big-name automakers.

The site is well-funded and will play home to plenty of big-name automakers.

In addition, many of those same research centres will be involved in three connected on-roadway programs being run alongside MCity. Overseen by MTC and aided by funds from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, one such project — focusing on a 3,000-vehicle connected technology project launched three years ago — will expand to encompass some 9,000 connected vehicles across the greater Ann Arbor area.

A prerequisite for truly smart automated driving systems, connected vehicle systems allow cars to notify each other of traffic problems and other hazards along their route, helping other cars and their passengers avoid snarl-ups and reach their destination in a timely and fuel efficient manner

Google is noticeably absent -- but it has its own test tracks.

Google is noticeably absent — but it has its own test tracks.

Some of the partner companies involved in both the Mcity project and its associated autonomous drive programs include Ford, Honda, GM, Nissan, Navistar, Qualcomm, Bosch, Toyota, Delphi, Denso, and State Farm insurance. Each of them have invested $1 million each over three years into the MCity project, and will play a pivotal role in the duty through thought leadership programs. In addition, a future thirty-three affiliate members are also contributing to the project, each investing $150,000 over the next there years to be part of this important study.

We note that Google — one of the biggest proponents of autonomous driving technology — is absent from this particular endeavour in the Midwest. But given Google has its own custom-built private road circuits near its Mountain View, CA campus, we’re guessing it has no need to duplicate an environment it presumably already has access to.

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