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University of Michigan opens $10M test city for driverless vehicle research

 
A woman walks in front of a car during a demonstration Monday at Mcity. The 32-acre simulated city will test driverless vehicles with building facades, brick and gravel roads and muddy signs.
A woman walks in front of a car during a demonstration Monday at Mcity. The 32-acre simulated city will test driverless vehicles with building facades, brick and gravel roads and muddy signs.
Published July 21, 2015

ANN ARBOR, Michigan — Automakers and researchers say a new simulated city at the University of Michigan could help speed the development of driverless and connected cars.

The 32-acre site, called Mcity, on the university's campus officially opened Monday. The $10 million testing ground will be run by the Mobility Transformation Center, a partnership among the university, state and federal governments, and auto and technology companies.

The site has many familiar features of urban driving, including brick and gravel roads, intersections, a railroad crossing, two roundabouts and parking spaces. Movable building facades and fake pedestrians can be altered for different kinds of tests. There's a simulated highway entrance ramp. Two features — a metal bridge and a tunnel — will be a special challenge for wireless signals and radar sensors.

Peter Sweatman, the director of the Mobility Transformation Center, said other test sites in Sweden and Japan have some of the same features, but the Michigan site is one of the most advanced autonomous vehicle testing grounds in the world. Automakers, high-tech companies and university researchers will test car-to-car communication systems, which could one day predict accidents and stop cars before a mishap. They'll also test semi-autonomous and driverless vehicles at the site.

Ryan Eustice, an associate professor of engineering at the University of Michigan, has been testing driverless cars at the site with Ford Motor Co. since November, when the roads were paved but other features weren't yet installed.

Eustice said the site allows researchers to be "maximally evil" toward the car, putting it into all sorts of situations that can be quickly and easily repeated, like a model of a pedestrian obscured by a bus that walks out into traffic. Every kilometer of testing at the site is worth hundreds of kilometers of real-world driving, he said, since it can take hours of real driving to come upon a scenario that's difficult for the car to handle.

"In terms of the weird stuff, we can pack it all in, in a very dense way," he said.

Hideki Hada, the general manager of integrated systems at Toyota's engineering campus in Ann Arbor, said Toyota also has a test city in Japan, but this is a neutral site that will allow it to make sure its cars can communicate with other automakers' vehicles. He said Toyota and other companies had input into what would be included at the site. One of his requests: dirty, mud-splashed road signs, so that automakers can make sure their cameras can still read them.

Sweatman said the site also will leave a lot of snow on the ground in the winter so that automakers can make sure that the cameras and radar used in driverless systems will still work in the snow.