Mock neighborhood simulates ‘real’ driving conditions for automated vehicles

The University of Michigan’s Mcity is a public-private partnership interested in overcoming unpredictable obstacles to driverless travel.

September 02, 2015 |

Google's driverless car. Photo: Steve Jurvetson/Wikimedia Commons

On July 20, the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor opened Mcity, a 32-acre simulated urban and suburban controlled environment, designed specifically to test the potential of connected and automated vehicle technologies.

The $6.5 million project comprises a five-mile stretch of roads, some of them up to five lanes. Mcity includes rearrangeable architecture such as buildings, streetlights, parked cars, traffic lights and stop signs, sidewalks, and other obstacles. Robotic pedestrians and mechanized bikes roam throughout Mcity.

The miniature city is developed and designed by the university’s two-year-old Interdisciplinary Mobility Transformation Center, a partnership of several automotive companies, the Michigan Department of Transportation, researchers from UM’s Transportation Research Institute, and its College of Engineering.

“The initiative demonstrates the great potential in working with partners outside the University to address compelling issues of broad impact,” said UM’s president Mark Schlissel. NPR reports that 15 companies, which include Ford, GM, and Nissan, paid $1 million each to help build Mcity.



Companies like Google, Toyota, Uber, and Apple have been working on self-driving technologies that rely on GPS, radar and remote sensors known as LIDAR.  So far the test results have been impressive, albeit in a limited sense. Experts anticipate that driverless streets and highways could be a common reality within the next 10 to 15 years. The real challenge, though, is getting driverless cars to react to and interact with how humans drive.

Google, which began its self-driving project in 2009, currently averages 10,000 autonomous miles per week on public streets. Over six years of testing through May 2015, its driverless vehicles had been involved in 12 minor accidents during more than 1.8 million miles of autonomous and manual driving combined. “Not once was the self-driving car the cause of the accident,” claims Google in a recent progress report. However, Google’s test cars rarely go beyond 25 miles per hour and so far have been limited to roads the car’s computers have already analyzed.

As the New York Times reported earlier this month, autonomous vehicles right now are programmed to drive overly cautiously, compared with humans’ typically aggressive driving habits. Autonomous cars “have to learn to be aggressive in the right amount, and the right amount depends on the culture,” Donald Norman, director of the Design Lab and the University of California, San Diego was quoted as saying.

Mcity, then, provides a testing ground for driverless cars in unpredictable conditions.

“There are many challenges ahead as automated vehicles are increasingly deployed on real roadways,” explains Peter Sweatman, director of the U-M Mobility Transformation Center. “Mcity is a safe, controlled and realistic environment where we are going to figure out how the incredible potential of connected and automated vehicles can be realized quickly, efficiently and safely.”

NPR quotes university researchers who are hoping to have 20 to 30 automated cars driving around Ann Arbor’s streets within the next six years. 

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