MCity, a 32-acre site recently opened by the University of Michigan, will be used to test driverless cars in partnership with auto industry big names
For Sebastian, life is destined to be lonely. The short pedestrian will, for now, be the sole resident of a small city located near the University of Michigan’s north campus. He’ll pass time by stepping into oncoming traffic – while others watch on, never warning of an impending crash.
But Sebastian won’t feel pain: he’s a robot, created by students of the university’s engineering school to assist researchers at MCity, a 32-acre environment that opened this week as a safe zone for testing driverless vehicles.
The “city” attempts to replicate situations motorists face every day.
A downtown facade with a cafe and bookshop has been painted along Liberty Street. Buildings here are easily moved to create several obstructed views during tests. Actual road signs used in south-eastern Michigan were donated for use at the facility.
Occasionally, the city will be deserted – like a 21st-century ghost town. But there’s a logical explanation for the acute attention to detail, said Peter Sweatman, head of the university’s Transportation Research Institute. The environment of MCity will allow researchers to prove autonomous vehicles can perform efficiently in a dense, urban setting, he said.
“MCity is all about accelerating the process of getting connected and automated mobility out on the public roads … and we’ve designed it specifically so we can learn very fast, and then get systems deployed,” Sweatman told the Guardian in an interview.
There are 11 signalized intersections, a railroad crossing, a tunnel, and a short freeway with on- and off-ramps. The town’s main corridors feature fire hydrants, parking meters and speed limit signs. Vehicles will eventually register the posted speeds and adjust accordingly, said Jim Sayer, a research scientist at the institute.
Same goes for Sebastian: the intent is to avoid hitting him. (Sebastian wasn’t out on Thursday for a public open house; he “took a tumble” the other day, said Sayer.)
Officials say the $10m project has created a real-world space where technologies behind autonomous vehicles can be perfected – unlike public roadways, with their inconsistencies.
“If a pedestrian crosses the street, it’s really difficult to get them to go back and do that again and again,” Sayer said.
The city was developed by the university in conjunction with the Michigan department of transportation, which contributed $3m of the investment. More than a dozen companies affiliated with the university’s Mobility Transformation Center – the so-called “Leadership Circle”, including Ford, General Motors and Verizon – contributed $1m over three years. An additional 30 affiliate sponsors contributed $150,000 over three years. Any sponsors who contributed to the investment can use the site for a minimum of four hours at a time.
Companies will be able to rehash scenarios as many times as needed. For example, if teams want a dog to dart out in front of a vehicle, a mechatronic animal may be created for research – perhaps Sebastian’s pet.
Automakers believe autonomous driving is the way of the future, and it’s a prospect they say may come to fruition within five years. A study from the Boston Consulting Group says partially autonomous vehicles will “hit the road in large numbers” by 2017. By 2035, more than 12m fully autonomous vehicles may be sold, the group said.
Beyond the ability to eat, read or take a quick nap, officials say the technology should improve vehicle safety, potentially eliminating 80% of fatal crashes, according to a study from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. More than 30,000 people died in vehicle crashes in 2013, the NHTSA has said.
That’s why officials view MCity as a “transformational moment to, at long last, making a decisive change to the current 33,000 fatalities that we have on our roads every year,” Sweatman said.
The objective isn’t to keep automated vehicles in MCity forever. Once the kinks are worked out, they’ll move to the streets of Ann Arbor. Sweatman said he expects 20,000-30,000 so-called “connected cars” that communicate with one another – such as with a light to notify when a vehicle or object is too close – will be travelling the region within six to eight years. Officials expect 20-30 fully autonomous vehicles to be on local roads in that timeframe.
“We have that tremendous potential to quickly go from off the roadway at MCity to on the roadway environment of Ann Arbor itself,” Sweatman said.
The public was invited on Thursday afternoon to stroll the city’s streets. Marge Stuebben, 78, moseyed about the town with her husband Ron. She said automation would suit her needs just fine.
“As a senior citizen, I’m excited because one day I’m not going to be able to drive,” she said.
That point was echoed by Kristina Kayser-Weiner, 68, a former nursing student at the university.
“I see this as a real potential,” she said. “As people get older and lose some independence, to think you can go to a doctor’s appointment, or whatever, with having transportation that you can initiate yourself.”
Source – http://www.psfk.com/2015/07/town-for-driverless-cars-mcity-university-of-michigan.html