A City Built to Test Self-Driving Cars Will Open Up Its Streets This Fall

It will even have mechanical pedestrians that jump into traffic.

Jun 3 2014, 7:45pm
Image: University of Michigan's Mobility Transformation Center

The heart of America's beleaguered auto industry will soon be home a 32-acre, multimillion-dollar high-tech transportation experiment. The University of Michigan, along with the local government and major automakers, is building a model town to test a system of self-driving "connected" cars.

The mock city’s robocars will navigate the urban environment’s twisty concrete and asphalt roads, and confront all the normal obstacles of a bustling city: traffic signs, roundabouts, stoplights, merge lanes, construction work, streetlights, sidewalks and even "mechanical pedestrians" that dart out into the street in front of traffic. The "Mobility Transformation Facility" will open this fall, the university announced yesterday.

“Today reminds me of when I was a young boy and used to watch The Jetsons,” said David Munson, the university’s dean of engineering, in the announcement. “We’re not doing flying cars here, but I think we’re doing something more important ... and almost as impressive.”

The simulation is run by a proprietary software, and programmers will code in dangerous situations—traffic jams and potential collisions—so engineers can anticipate problems and, ideally, solve for them before the automated autos hit the streets. It's laying the groundwork for the real-world system planned for 2021 in Ann Arbor.

There will surely be some technical barriers to work out, but the biggest hurdles self-driving cars will have to clear are likely regulatory, legal, and political. Will driverless cars be subsidized like public transit? If autonomous cars eliminate crashes, will insurance companies start tanking? Will the data-driven technology be a privacy invasion?

"It's not just the car manufacturers that'll be interested, it's also the people who handle the data," David Lampe, a university communications rep told me: telecommunications, freight companies, big data management, traffic control, suppliers, insurance, smart parking. "There's huge opportunities for a wide range of industries here."

So far, the car companies on board are Ford, General Motors, and Toyota. They will be supplying the automated connected cars for the test city.

Note: that's "automated," not "autonomous." The vehicles in development aren't 100 percent self-driving like Google's now-famous robocars; rather, a human still sits in the driver's seat, but much of the process is automated, giving the vehicle enhanced capabilities. Google hasn't signed on to participate in the experiment, but Lampe told me they're in the process of finding partners, and "Google might well be one of those."

Instead, the researchers, policymakers, and municipal authorities will focus on the safety promise of network-linked vehicles that communicate wirelessly. As the narrative goes, driverless cars could cut down on traffic, pollution, and collisions. But before cars can drive themselves and take human error out of the equation, they need to talk to each other. This has attracted the interest of the federal government, which is helping fund the development of vehicle-to-vehicle communication technology.

Image: University of Michigan

"In the future, your car will talk to other cars, to traffic lights, and to other roadside devices. And the roadway will talk back, too," explains the university’s website. "Your Connected Vehicle will find out about such things as traffic tie-ups, icy roads, disabled vehicles, and lane closures."

Automobiles that can communicate with their environment have even more capabilities than driverless vehicles, Lampe said. "If you can manage entire regions of traffic you can reduce accidents by as much as 80 percent; you can reduce emissions by at least 80 percent."

The mock town can be used test this networked system with either automated or totally human-free cars. "A Google car could also be a connected vehicle and then it would achieve the extra benefits of what's happening around the corner or two miles down the street or across town," Lampe said.

It’s cool stuff, but complicated. The only-marginally-smart cars on the market now can already be hacked, and the security implications of an entire city of internet-connected, automated driving machines are glaring. The internet of things is notoriously vulnerable, and the internet of cars will be too.

Presumably, those are the kind of kinks the puppeteers controlling the University of Michigan's model future city will be trying to tease out—with robotic pedestrians and simulated chaos on the road, before things get really real.