Michigan’s new Motor City: Ann Arbor as a driverless-car hub
‘MCity’ a living laboratory for the next generation of technologies
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.
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.