On July 20, the University of Michigan’s “Mcity” will open for autonomous vehicles. Both Mcity’s inhabitants and the vehicles on its streets will be robotic, but the test course is meant to simulate driving on real roads with real hazards.
The 23 acres of Mcity will be different from closed tracks or public roads because they will allow for more rigorous tests of self-driving cars. Unlike other test courses around the world, multiple automakers will be able to compare vehicle performance alongside one another in varied weather conditions.
Unlike public roads in California and other states, which Google and its competitors are using for hands-free testing, Mcity allows for greater control of obstacles without worries about public safety. Risky interactions, such at intersections and traffic circles, or those among vehicles, pedestrians, and cyclists, can be tried without harm if all the participants are robots or crash dummies.
“We know of no other facilities worldwide that have a comparable approach to creating total urban and suburban situations for testing automated vehicles,” Peter Sweatman, director of the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute, told Robotics Business Review.
“Mcity will offer a real-world testing environment, while allowing more control over testing conditions than field tests on public roads,” he said. “That means that selected complex urban situations may be accurately repeated, supporting faster development of highly reliable technology.”
Obstacles for self-driving cars
Proponents of self-driving automobiles claim that they’ll be safer and relieve urban congestion because they’ll travel at a more constant speed and closer together, and they’ll ultimately have faster reaction times.
But before such cars can take to the roads, they must first demonstrate that they can adapt to ever-changing conditions and that they can meet the high expectations of motorists used to being in control.
About 32,000 Americans died in vehicle accidents in 2013, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, so the initial adoption of self-driving vehicles will depend on their reputation for safety on roads still dominated by unpredictable humans.
Construction zone ahead
The University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute has partnered with major car makers including Ford, General Motors, Honda, Nissan and Toyota. Other participants include Delphi Automotive, Iteris, Qualcomm, State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance, Verizon, and Xerox.
“The Mobility Transformation Center, or MTC, was conceived as a public/private R&D initiative,” said Sweatman, who is also director of the MTC. “Major automakers, as well as Tier 1 suppliers and other key industry sectors — insurance, telecommunications and IT — see value in working together to advance connected and automated vehicles because it ultimately makes good business sense. But in order to get to a commercially viable ecosystem, a range of industrial and government partners need to work together.”
Michigan’s Department of Transportation is paying $3 million of the $6.5 million for Mcity, which will include five-lane roads, simulated buildings, and construction zones. In addition, the Michigan Economic Development Corp. is providing $3 million to support the Ann Arbor Connected Vehicle Test Environment, which is principally funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation.
More broadly, Sweatman said, the MTC’s eight-year program will receive at least $25 million in funding from federal and local agencies.
Among the plans for Mcity is to connect 3,000 vehicles (currently being tested in Ann Arbor, Mich.) so that they can communicate with one another and elements of the environment. By moving in greater harmony, self-driving cars could eventually harness the Internet of Things to save gas, avoid accidents, and reduce some of the traffic jams in which today’s commuters find themselves.
“The number of vehicles on-site at any one time will depend on the number and scope of research projects being conducted there,” said Sweatman in an e-mail.
The test area “is designed to reproduce the most challenging environments, which will arise in dense, complex urban mobility situations,” he added. “Mcity features simulated urban and suburban streets — complete with sidewalks, building facades, traffic signals, roadside furniture, highway entry ramps, gravel roads and railroad tracks — to provide a safe, controlled, real-world environment for robust, repeatable testing.”
Mobility and infrastructure to transform?
“Connected and automated vehicle technology will usher in a revolution in the mobility of people and goods comparable to that sparked by the introduction of the automobile a century ago,” said Sweatman. “Mcity is a one-of-a-kind research facility that will allow researchers to test connected and automated vehicles in ways that simply can’t be done on public roads today.”
Another question that Mcity may help answer is how urban planners will adjust their road designs as driverless vehicles become more common. Would self-driving and interconnected cars need road signs, and could they handle a blackout affecting traffic lights? The university said that its research should bear fruit by 2021, and some experts say that self-driving vehicles will be on the market by then.
“We are extremely interested in the impact of automation on infrastructure design and maintenance,” Sweatman said. “Mcity is designed specifically to address these issues, including reconfigurable traffic lanes and roadway markings.”
In the short term, driver-assist technologies such as self-parking cars and lane-drift warnings will become more common. Steering wheels aren’t going away, but automakers are actively pursuing vehicles that can compensate for distracted motorists or eventually take over the chores of most driving.
“More and more automated features are being tested and made available in vehicles,” said Sweatman. “It is also necessary to watch developments in smart cities and smart highways, which will allow us to move rapidly beyond purely vehicle-based, driver-assist technologies.”
More on Self-Driving Vehicles
- Uber’s CMU Raid Raises Robotics Partnership Doubts
- Self-Driving Vehicles Webcast: the Road From Automation to Autonomy
- Consumers Embrace Self-Driving Vehicles, Drones
- Careers in Robotics: Spotlight on the University of Michigan
- Mini Self-Driving Cars Race at MIT
- Google Mulls Partner for Its Self-Driving Cars
- Safe at Any Speed: What’s Next?
- Self-Driving Cars: 2015 and Beyond
For instance, Daimer’s Mercedes-Benz unit recently showed off a concept car whose front seats can face the rear of the vehicle. Other observers later pointed out that motion sickness could be a problem.
Taxi services and competitors such as Uber are also very interested in removing human drivers in the hope of maximizing profitability. Self-driving vehicles are expected to be a disruptive technology affecting traffic patterns, personal driving habits, and supply chains.
“MTC plans to carry out research beyond technology to include all aspects of the economic and societal impacts of automation, including customer value and acceptance,” Sweatman said. “We seek to understand the specific value of automation, and connectivity, to consumers. We will address the lengthy transitional period when automated machines and human-controlled machines will need to coexist, and automation plays a bigger and bigger role over time.”