Driverless car testing site Mcity opens in Ann Arbor

Melissa Burden
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — An automotive proving ground intended to help Michigan lead in driverless-car technology officially opened Monday at the University of Michigan.

Mcity is a simulated city with building facades and sidewalk cafes. There are five miles of roadways, working traffic signals, street lights, construction cones — even potholes. Within the confines of the 32-acre course on the North Campus, autonomous cars and advanced automotive technology will be tested and refined.

Road-testing at Mcity already has been going on for months. More than a dozen companies such as Ford Motor Co., General Motors Co. and Toyota Motor Co. and suppliers including Denso and Verizon will be able to sign up to test on the site in four-hour increments. UM faculty and engineering students will have access to the facility to work on projects and to collaborate with the industry.

While some firms are testing self-driving cars on roadways — notably in California’s Silicon Valley — Mcity will allow companies to repeat and retest scenarios the cars may experience on the road in order to ensure the systems are working properly. One example would be a pedestrian coming out from between two cars partially hidden by a bus.

U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, who attended the opening Monday, said he rode in a Google self-driving car in California a few years ago.

“They’ve got nothing on us. This is the center of the (automated driving technology) universe. It is Michigan. It’s not California,” he said. “We are not going to let Silicon Valley take this technology, because this technology was born at the University of Michigan, born in the greater Detroit area, and we’re going to be the global leader of this technology that will transform mobility.”

The University of Michigan and the Michigan Department of Transportation pooled about $10 million to open the test facility. Construction began last year.

Hundreds of people gathered Monday for the unveiling, including politicians and automotive industry leaders. Many of Mcity’s partners held demonstrations of technology, including Delphi Automotive that showed its eye-detection drowsiness technology. But the kickoff did not include any demonstrations of driverless vehicles.

“Mcity is here to accelerate the deployment of connected and automated technologies to the benefit of society and the economy,” said Peter Sweatman, director of the UM Mobility Transformation Center, a public-private partnership of industry, government and academia that operates the facility. There currently are 48 industry sponsors of Mcity, whose names and banners hang from a fence around the track.

Sweatman said he eventually expects Google will collaborate with Mcity and he would welcome them as a partner.

The site was designed with curves and crests “so you can’t see what’s coming,” he said. “It’s been designed specifically to be challenging.” In the winter, some snow and ice will remain on the roadway to obscure lane lines and see how vehicles react.

Supporters believe the research and testing done at the site will help make vehicles safe to drive on roadways and will improve the flow of transportation. UM President Mark Schlissel said work done there will advance the way cities are planned and how people and goods are moved.

Some 33,000 people lost their lives last year on the nation’s highways, and automated connected vehicles promise to significantly reduce that figure, said Kirk Steudle, director of the Michigan Department of Transportation. “This is the facility that’s going to help us get there,” he said.

The federal government estimates that connected and automated vehicles could eliminate 80 percent of crashes that don’t involve alcohol.

Hideki Hada, general manager of integrated vehicle systems department for the Toyota Technical Center, said Mcity will speed up Toyota’s development of prototype connected-car and automated-driving technology.

Hada said while Toyota has a similar track in Japan, Mcity is just five minutes from Toyota’s Michigan tech facility and will serve as a “nice playground for us.”

“Here is a nice place to have a baseline understanding of the road signs, buildings so we can test improvement,” he said.