University of Michigan to Open Robo Car Urban Test Track in the Fall

Illustration: University of Michigan

How do you test the city-driving worthiness of a self-driving car without subjecting a city to the risk of a robot run amok? Build a test city. Last week, researchers at the University of Michigan announced that they are in the process doing just that. According to a press release, they're building a fake city center on a 13-hectare plot at the school’s North Campus just outside Ann Arbor. The faux downtown, to be known as the Mobility Transformation Facility (MTF), will have a four-lane highway, stoplights, intersections, roundabouts, road signs, a railroad crossing, and construction barrels. The facility’s designers are also putting up building fascades meant to simulate the challenge of transmitting wireless signals inside urban canyons.

A ribbon cutting is scheduled for 12 September, says Peter Sweatman, director of both the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute and the Mobility Transformation Center—a public-private partnership that is funding and operating the facility.

Google has gotten a lot of publicity lately for refining the performance of its fleet of automated vehicles on the streets surrounding its California campus. But the University of Michigan team wants total control of the variables cars will face as they’re put through their paces at the Mobility Transformation Facility. For example, the test environment will eventually include a mechanical pedestrian designed to do the dumb things we humans do, like step out into traffic when we shouldn’t or catch drivers off guard by crossing in the middle of a block—all the better to determine just what level of complexity an automated car’s systems can handle.

Just as important, says Sweatman, will be an improved understanding of how such an environment works holistically. That, he predicts, will enable the group to meet one of its goals: installing the infrastructure to make automated driving on the streets of Ann Arbor possible by 2021.

“This is not your grandfather’s test track,” Sweatman told IEEE Spectrum. “There’ll be no squealing tires, nor any handling tests,” he says, “But what you can expect to see is interaction between automated vehicles and typical activities that happen in a city.”

Among the research questions to be explored are how automated vehicles will interact with human controlled vehicles and how effectively a car can handle the switch from automated driving to human-controlled driving and vice versa.

Sweatman says there will be testing of all levels of automation as defined by U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration:

Obviously the most challenging will be Level 4 automation [which means no human participation in the driving task beyond telling the vehicle where to go] in dense complex environments. Several of our partners are interested in stepping through the various levels [from the vehicle assisting the driver to the human assisting the car when necessary] as part of their ongoing research.

Asked how many automated cars the test facility would eventually house at a given time, Sweatman couldn’t give an estimate. The aim at this stage, he says, isn’t really to see how these cars behave as a group, but to test the capability of individual vehicles. The press release notes that a driverless Ford Fusion is being readied for testing there. But it will be far from the only vehicle taking to the roads inside the testbed. 

Sweatman told IEEE Spectrum that the current “leadership circle” of companies, all of which have committed to a 3-year period of research, includes automakers Ford, General Motors, and Toyota. Other companies include Bosch and Xerox. Despite being synonymous with photocopies, Xerox apparently now derives more than half of its revenue from transportation technologies. The company is a leading producer of software and systems for toll collection, electronic mass transit fare collection, and smart parking. These systems will play an important role in the rollout of automated driving in Ann Arbor, says Sweatman. And “there will need to be an operating system for the infrastructure that interacts with driverless and shared vehicles.”

Asked whether there are any plans to collaborate with Google, Sweatman says he and his group have been talking with the search company and have been to visit the campus to see for themselves what Google has wrought. But he wouldn’t divulge any details about how Google might be involved in the further development of, or testing at, the Mobility Transformation Facility. “It may well be that they participate at some point. They are welcome to join the leadership circle at any time.”

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