As a growing number of companies continue to develop driverless cars and even 18-wheel trucks, one must wonder where it’s safe to test them. One such facility is a new site at the University of Michigan.


Mcity, which opened Monday at the Ann Arbor campus, is a simulated city with building facades and sidewalk cafes. The city, housed on a 32-acre course, contains five miles of roadways, working traffic signals, street lights, construction cones, a tunnel, gravel roads and numerous obstructed views. There’s even a four-lane highway with entrance and exit ramps. The University of Michigan and the Michigan Department of Transportation pooled approximately $10 million to open the test facility so autonomous cars and advanced automotive technology may be tested and refined safely.


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


What’s interesting is that although some firms are testing self-driving cars on roads on their own, Mcity will allow companies to repeat and retest scenarios the cars may experience on the road to ensure systems are working properly. The site was designed with curves and crests “so you can’t see what’s coming,” says 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.


“Mcity has been designed specifically to be challenging,” says Sweatman in the article. “In the winter, some snow and ice will remain on the roadway to obscure lane lines and see how vehicles react. Sebastian, a mechatronic pedestrian, will step out into traffic to test whether the robot cars will sense him and hit the brakes to avoid running him down.”


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


“This is a nice place to have a baseline understanding of the road signs and buildings so we can test improvement,” Hada says.


Automakers have said driverless cars may be on the road within five years. The market for autonomous technology will grow to $42 billion by 2025 and self-driving cars may account for a quarter of global auto sales by 2035, according to Boston Consulting Group, reports an article on Bloomberg Business. By 2017, semi-autonomous cars that operate in auto-pilot mode, park themselves and change lanes automatically will be available in “large numbers,” the firm notes.


“We all compete on a technology level,” Greg Stevens, global manager of Ford’s driver assistance and active safety research, says in the Bloomberg article. “But when it comes to things like regulatory approaches and legal approaches, that’s where you really want to come together and collaborate.”


I think Mcity is a great idea because it offers a place for automakers to safely test vehicles—as many times or for as long as is necessary. It’s also sure to improve collaboration among partners.


What are your thoughts about Mcity?