Mcity in Ann Arbor, Michigan has all the makings of a small city—streets up to 5 lanes wide, cross-sections and stoplights, underpasses, buildings, vandalized signs, faded lane markings—all poised on a 32-acre site on the University of Michigan’s campus. The elaborate mise en scène at Mcity is part of the newly formed Mobility Transformation Center, where researchers study and test the behavior of automated and connected cars.
The testing facilities at Mcity are the first of their kind, specifically designed to simulate the everyday bedlam of the streets—with all the built-in surprises that comprise life in the city. The mock-town is equipped with rearrangeable architecture, various types of road surfaces and everything from suburban streets to freeways, where the newest vehicle technologies are seen in action (and, most importantly, in reaction). Here, researchers push the limits of these systems by emulating the real experiences that drivers grapple with everyday, like blind corners and distracted pedestrians (Mcity’s are robotic), as well as communications with other vehicles and GPS and traffic databases.
U-M partnered with the Michigan Department of Transportation and several car companies to open the space this July in preparation for the impending arrival of driverless streets, which, they say, could be 10 to 15 years from now. That date may seem far away as many cars can already perform on autopilot with impressive results and Google cars are already commonly seen in Silicon Valley. But we’re still far from a fully-automated road—and rushing to hand off the wheel entirely has already proven catastrophic. With a keen focus on automation, car companies today increasingly employ technologies to keep an eye on the driver—and make sure that the driver, in turn, is keeping an eye on the road. This makes Mcity all the more attractive to U-M commercial partners—companies like Ford, GM, Honda, Nissan, Toyota, State Farm, Verizon, and Xerox.
A driver’s instinct for reacting to surprises can only come from experience; translating that know-how into a vehicle’s software is the crux of fully ‘teaching’ cars how to drive themselves. But if we succeed, that ability to drive could be lost to humans, as some experts warn, and we’ll be left at the mercy of cars to handle emergencies. Scenarios like these beg consideration that the obstacles to a driverless future may not be only technical. In any case, Mcity and centers who follow in its footsteps will be key to understanding automation in the real world and making future cars compatible with unpredictable city streets.