How we will drive: simulating the driverless city

Are mocked-up cities truly useful testing grounds for autonomous transport tech?

We’ve talked before about the beginnings of systematic test environments for autonomous cars – mock-ups of the future, if you like. The University of Michigan has just opened a research centre devoted to testing these vehicles:

The research center, Mcity, is built on 32 acres of the university’s campus. It’s basically a fake town designed to simulate everything a driverless car could face in the real world. Cars will drive down concrete, asphalt, brick, and dirt roads, navigating around intersections, traffic signals, construction barriers, and other obstacles. There are sidewalks and movable facades meant to evoke small town America.

The more the merrier, right? The more facilities we have exploring this, the better the tech will be once it hits the real world? That seems to be the general theory…

Beyond the driverless car

Once you dig a deeper, you discover that there’s a wider vision at play than just driverless cars:

In particular, Mcity allows researchers to simulate the environments where connected and automated vehicles will be most challenged. Even seemingly minor details a vehicle might encounter in urban and suburban settings have been incorporated into Mcity, such as road signs defaced by graffiti and faded lane markings.

The types of technologies that will be tested at the facility include connected technologies – vehicles talking to other vehicles or to the infrastructure, commonly known as V2V or V2I – and various levels of automation all the way up to fully autonomous, or driverless vehicles.

How we will drive

But not everyone is convinced that this is a useful approach:

M-City is not for moving fast or breaking things. This kind of methodical research and development seems prudent when coordinating computerized metal death traps capable of speeds up to 100mph. It’s kind of refreshing. But it also seems to kind of miss the point of how driverless technology will actually be implemented.

The argument is that it will take decades for us to reach the point where driverless cars are the dominant force on the road – and therefore, test environments like this aren’t much use, because what you really need is the real-world mic of driven and driverless cars.

But that argument in of itself misses the fact that autonomous cars are only one elements in a spectrum of automation tools that will reshape the roads. And testing any and all of those will smooth the path to that future.

MCity in use

Here’s a video of the test facility in use: