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Welcome to Mcity, an 'Outdoor Lab' for Automated Vehicles

July 20, 2015
This testing facility in Ann Arbor doesn't measure performance and durability. It analyzes how connected vehicles react to real-life situations, as its oddly placed crosswalks and 120 road signs with dents and graffiti attest.

At first blush, the imitation streetscape, with its cheery plywood storefronts and fully functional streetlights, might look like a Hollywood studio set or a glorified version of Safety Town, the class where preschoolers learn to obey traffic laws.

But study the view more closely, and suddenly it becomes more complex. The streetscape's terrain is constantly shifting, from “meandering gravel road” to “brick paver road,” to “straight gravel roadway.” High-tech instruments collect data on traffic activity via wireless, fiber optics, ethernet and a “real-time kinematic positioning system.”

This network of winding roads built up over the past two years in a 32-acre field in Ann Arbor, Mich., is a $10 million “test environment for automated vehicles of the future,” according to  Peter Sweatman, director of the U-M Mobility Transportation Center (MTC), a  public-private partnership between the University of Michigan, automakers including Ford and Toyota, the Michigan Department of Transportation, and other interested companies like State Farm and Verizon.

The “outdoor lab” called Mcity, opened this week. Here, automotive researchers can bring connected and automated vehicles for testing long before they hit the real road. “Automated” refers to vehicles with some driverless features, but not fully driverless or “autonomous.”

“It’s not a test track, it’s a test environment for automated vehicles of the future,” Sweatman said in a video announcing the lab’s launch.

“We can test vehicles here in Mcity, then move them onto the streets of Ann Arbor,” he said.

It’s all part of MTC’s central goal: “to develop and implement an advanced system of connected and automated vehicles in Ann Arbor by 2021.” The plan is to put 9,000 connected vehicles on the road in greater Ann Arbor, and 20,000 total on Southeast Michigan roads. Most will be company-owned, employee-driven fleets, communicating with a new connected infrastructure located near OEM facilities.

Signs, roadways and lane markings can be switched out or removed in Mcity. Sometimes, the lab’s collection of 120 roadway signs might be banged up, graffiti’ed or missing entirely--or lane lines faded, to see how the vehicles react. Lanes can change from 12 to eight feet, to see if automated vehicles can effectively squeeze into a smaller space.  The simulated downtown includes blind corners and pedestrian crosswalks at midblock—all things that might throw off drivers or automated vehicles alike.

Designers managed to cram both urban and suburban environments into the site.

“There’s nothing else really like it,” said Jim Sayer, MTC’s deployment director, said in a statement. “Most test tracks are designed for performance, high speed, and durability,” rather than decision-making and communication skills and reaction time.

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