Michi­gan’s new Mo­tor City: Ann Ar­bor as a driver­less-car hub

‘MCity’ a liv­ing lab­o­ra­tory for the next gen­er­a­tion of tech­nolo­gies

The Hamilton Spectator - - BUSINESS - NEAL E. BOUDETTE ANN AR­BOR, MICH. —

As the world looks ahead to a fu­ture of in­ter­con­nected, self-driv­ing cars, this col­lege town just west of Detroit has emerged as a one-of-akind, liv­ing lab­o­ra­tory for the tech­nolo­gies that will pave the way.

Here, it is not un­com­mon to see self-driv­ing Ford Fu­sions or Lexus sedans wind­ing their way through down­town streets and busy in­ter­sec­tions, oc­cu­pied by engi­neers with eyes fo­cused more on lap­tops and test equip­ment than the road­way.

Soon stu­dents and staff mem­bers at the Univer­sity of Michi­gan will be able to get around the engi­neer­ing cam­pus on fully au­to­mated, driver­less shut­tle buses pro­vided by a French com­pany drawn to Ann Ar­bor by the univer­sity’s au­tonomous-car test track, known as MCity.

And at any time of the day, some 1,500 cars — owned by univer­sity em­ploy­ees, busi­nesses and lo­cal res­i­dents, and wired up by univer­sity re­searchers — ra­dio their speed and di­rec­tion to one an­other and to equip­ment like traf­fic lights and cross­walk sig­nals. It is all part of a vast pi­lot project run by the univer­sity to de­velop con­nect­ed­car tech­nolo­gies that someday should ease con­ges­tion and make self-driv­ing cars safe.

“This com­bi­na­tion of re­search and test­ing in a con­trolled fa­cil­ity like MCity, and test­ing on the street in the real world, on this scale, doesn’t ex­ist any­where else in the world,” said James R. Sayer, di­rec­tor of the Univer­sity of Michi­gan Trans­porta­tion Re­search In­sti­tute.

And Ann Ar­bor is not alone. Thanks to its long au­to­mo­tive his­tory, Michi­gan is the site of a broad ar­ray of re­search ef­forts and cen­tres that are fo­cus­ing on connected cars and au­tonomous ve­hi­cles. In ad­di­tion, Michi­gan has passed laws clear­ing the way for ex­ten­sive test­ing on pub­lic roads — even for self-driv­ing ve­hi­cles that have no steer­ing wheels — and has equipped more than 100 pub­lic high­ways with elec­tron­ics to fa­cil­i­tate test­ing of connected cars and self-driv­ing trucks.

One of the strong­est draws to Ann Ar­bor is MCity, a 32-acre test­ing ground that opened in 2015. It fea­tures sim­u­lated city streets, in­ter­sec­tions and store­fronts where car­mak­ers and oth­ers can test self­driv­ing ve­hi­cles in a con­fined but re­al­is­tic set­ting. Dozens of com­pa­nies, in­clud­ing Gen­eral Mo­tors, Toy­ota, Honda, BMW and In­tel, are con­duct­ing re­search there in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the univer­sity.

Last win­ter, they were joined by Navya, a French startup that has de­vel­oped a small, au­tonomous shut­tle bus. Two will go into ser­vice at the univer­sity in Septem­ber in one of the first tri­als of a driver­less tran­sit ve­hi­cle open to the pub­lic. By the end of the year, Navya plans to be­gin build­ing its buses near Ann Ar­bor.

The least vis­i­ble of the univer­sity’s re­search ef­forts is its largest: the on-road test of ve­hi­cle-to-ve­hi­cle, or V2V, com­mu­ni­ca­tions in­volv­ing 1,500 cars, trucks and buses. Auto in­dus­try ex­ec­u­tives said they knew of no other live test of this scale any­where in the world.

The ve­hi­cles in the project have been equipped with small ra­dio trans­mit­ters that broad­cast their speed and di­rec­tion 10 times per sec­ond. At more than two dozen in­ter­sec­tions, traf­fic lights and cross­walks have sim­i­lar trans­mit­ters, al­low­ing them to com­mu­ni­cate with the ve­hi­cles.

The aim is to de­velop V2V tech­nolo­gies that will help im­prove traf­fic flow, Sayer said. “If a car is stopped 200 feet from a traf­fic light, you know there’s a long line of cars there,” he said. “So you could lengthen the green light dy­nam­i­cally to re­duce con­ges­tion.”

Pre­vent­ing ac­ci­dents is part of the plan. On a re­cent af­ter­noon, MCity re­searchers demon­strated what they are work­ing to­ward. In one test, a self-driv­ing car ap­proached a curve ob­scured by hedges, and sud­denly slowed. Why? Be­cause be­yond the hedges an­other car stopped in the road had broad­cast its po­si­tion, warn­ing the self-driv­ing car of the haz­ard. In an­other demon­stra­tion, a car driv­ing at near high­way speed jammed on the brakes. The hard brak­ing ac­tion sent out a warn­ing to a fol­low­ing ve­hi­cle to slow down. “You can get that sig­nal even if the car is brak­ing 1,000 feet down the road, so you can be­gin to brake even be­fore you see the car,” Sayer said.

This fall, the univer­sity’s V2V work will ex­pand into a new area. Elec­tron­ics at cross­walks will be able to pick up the Wi-Fi sig­nal from cell­phones and alert ap­proach­ing cars that a pedes­trian is start­ing to cross the road.

The univer­sity ex­pects to ex­pand the num­ber of wired cars tak­ing part in the tri­als to 2,500 by 2018.

The Toy­ota devel­op­ment arm work­ing on self-driv­ing cars is in Ann Ar­bor. Other au­tomak­ers have set up com­pa­ra­ble op­er­a­tions else­where in the state. GM is as­sem­bling self-driv­ing test ve­hi­cles, based on its Bolt elec­tric car, in Orion Town­ship. Fiat Chrysler has teamed up with Waymo, the di­vi­sion of Al­pha­bet, Google’s par­ent, that is work­ing on au­tonomous cars. Waymo it­self has set up its own devel­op­ment cen­tre north­west of Detroit.

BRIT­TANY GREESON, NEW YORK TIMES

A ve­hi­cle fit­ted with sen­sors makes its way around MCity, a test track that mim­ics traf­fic con­di­tions, at the Univer­sity of Michi­gan in Ann Ar­bor, Mich.

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