Welcome to Mcity: a human-free city built to test driverless cars

Researchers of the University of Michigan (U-M) built a simulated city where they are testing out new driverless car innovations. The controlled test environment at U-M in Ann Arbor covers 13 hectare and contains all the characteristics of a real suburb or small city. There is an entire network of roads lined with sidewalks, streetlights, stop signs and traffic signals. There’s even a downtown area complete with fake building facades and outdoor dining areas.

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The simulated city also features a traffic circle, a bridge, a tunnel, some unpaved roads, and even a four-lane highway with entrance and exit ramps.

While Mcity drivers don’t have to contend with real pedestrians, there will be one mechanical foot-traveler (a robotlike machine named Sebastian) that steps out into traffic to see whether the automated cars can hit the brakes in time.

In addition to evaluating fully automated, or driverless, cars, the researchers also hope to test out so-called connected vehicles within Mcity’s limits. Connected cars can either communicate with one another (vehicle-to-vehicle control, or V2V) or with pieces of equipment, such as traffic lights, that are located near roadways (vehicle-to-infrastructure control, or V2I).

Even the smallest details of Mcity have been planned out in advance to replicate conditions that connected and automated vehicles could face in the real world. For example, there are street signs covered up with graffiti, and faded yellow and white lane markings line the streets.

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Until now, tests of autonomous cars have been conducted on public roads or private proving grounds. Automakers study robot cars on old test tracks designed to evaluate how fast traditional cars can run laps or how well they handle with humans at the wheel. Google Inc. has logged more than 1 million miles (1.6 million kilometers) of testing its self-driving cars on Silicon Valley roads and, as of last month, Austin, Texas, highways.

M City represents an alternative to that.

“If you’re out on the public roadways, certainly all kinds of really unusual things will arise, but they’re only going to arise once,” Peter Sweatman, head of the Transportation Research Institute said in an interview. “We like the idea of creating challenging situations that we can reproduce as many times as we want.”
Once a technology is proved in M City’s controlled environment, it can be tested on public roads, he said. Automakers and the university already have 3,000 “connected cars” on the roads in Ann Arbor, capable of communicating with one another and with infrastructure such as traffic lights. By 2020, there will be 29,000 connected cars tested on public roads in southeastern Michigan, Sweatman said.

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