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University of Michigan Opens Fake City for Driverless Vehicle Research

Mcity, billed as a linchpin to preserve southeast Michigan's dominance in automotive technology's future, is designed to accelerate development of inter-vehicle communication and driverless cars.

(TNS) -- Mcity, the new research hub for autonomous and connected vehicle technology, had its coming out party July 20 in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Billed as a linchpin to preserve southeast Michigan's dominance in automotive technology's future, Mcity is designed to accelerate development of inter-vehicle communication and driverless cars. This is a rapidly emerging engineering realm that features such newcomers as Google, Tesla and Apple who threaten to shift the auto industry's core westward.

"I recently visited Google's headquarters and I rode in one of their cars," U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., said. "After coming to this place I can tell you they've got nothing on us. We're not going to let Silicon Valley take this technology away. This is the center of the universe for automotive technology."

Peters also noted that Mcity was opening on the 46th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing and Neil Armstrong's historic walk.

While research has already begun on autonomous driving on the 32-acre site on U-M's North Campus near the intersection of Plymouth Road and Huron River Parkway, this morning's ceremony featured U-M President Mark Schlissel; Sen. Debbie Stabenow and Peters; U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, whose district includes the university; Kirk Steudle, director of the Michigan Department of Transportation; and Ann Arbor Mayor Christopher Taylor.

Mcity, which cost about $10 million, is funded by the university, $3 million from MDOT and $1 million over three years from each of 15 companies known at the Leadership Circle. Another 32 affiliate companies are each contributing $150,000 over three years, said Peter Sweatman, director of the U-M's Transportation Research Institute and head of the Mobility Transformation Center that oversees Mcity.

Among the Leadership Circle are Ford, General Motors, Honda, Nissan, Toyota, Delphi, Denso, Robert Bosch, Xerox, Verizon and Qualcomm.

Inside the boundaries are a variety of traffic scenarios, including facades of buildings, roundabouts and intersections where visibility is impaired. Maximum speed is 40 miles per hour. Most of the course is designed to simulate real-life situations in which vehicles will communicate with each other to avoid collisions.

For example, picture a pedestrian coming out from between two parked cars, partly obscured by a bus.

"We reproduce that situation in exactly the same way as many times as we want so the engineers and the researchers can vary their algorithms and improve them," Sweatman said.

He said between 40 and 50 construction workers from MDOT and outside contractors worked over the last few months to get all the structures, pavement and other elements of the village in place.

Everyone wants to know when all the sensors, software and three-dimensional mapping will evolve to a point where cars can drive themselves in significant numbers.

"We're going to go through a protracted period, maybe 10 years, when we will have a significant amount of automation on the highway with conventional human control mixed in," Sweatman said.

"The problem with that is that humans cheat. They go faster. They run traffic lights. The machine does what it is programmed to do. So we have this mismatch. Eventually we need to have both humans and machines operating to the same standards."

Google has been testing its small fleet of autonomous vehicles in Bay Area traffic near its Mountain View, Calif., headquarters.

Sweatman said he has had "a number of conversations with Google."

"They are very familiar with what we have here," Sweatman said. "I believe we will eventually see a good collaboration there. We need what's happening on the West Coast as well as what's happening here."

All members of Mcity's Leadership Circle have access to all research conducted there. U-M faculty members can submit research proposals. Members of the leadership circle will review those and recommend which should be funded.

Hideki Hada, who leads the integrated vehicle systems team at the Toyota Technical Center in Ann Arbor, said Toyota already conducts various connected vehicle technologies on public roads, but Mcity will help them find solutions that will better prepare those technologies for real-world conditions.

"When cars come together at one intersection going at the same speed," Hada said. "We need to repeat that situation repeatedly and be able to measure the cars' responses. On public roads we have to wait, wait, wait."

©2015 the Detroit Free Press. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.