Autonomous vehicle testing site "Mcity" opens on north campus

Wednesday, August 12, 2015 - 3:56pm

On Monday morning, Michigan's leading auto-industry experts and government officials, alongside University leaders, gathered in a brand new city, “Mcity,” the world’s first controlled vehicle test site designed to research and refine automated vehicle technology. The project aims to pave the way for mass-market driverless cars.

With the sponsorship of 48 top industry and auto companies, such as Honda, Ford and General Motors, Mcity was created by the University’s Mobility Transformation Center in collaboration with the Michigan Department of Transportation.

Located off of Baxter Road on the University’s North Campus, the facility itself is a 32-acre test track equipped with intersections, traffic lights, signs and signals, building facades, sidewalks and construction obstacles. Mcity even incorporates such minor details drivers may encounter on the road as faded lane markings, potholes and traffic signs covered in graffiti.

In an interview with the Daily, University President Mark Schlissel said Mcity reflects the University’s ability to bring together different economic sectors, including technology, insurance, city planning and government at the local, state and federal levels in an effort to address a major societal problem: driver safety. He added that Mcity enhances the University of Michigan community by providing unparalleled research and employment opportunities for students of different backgrounds.

“It’s great for the University of Michigan,” Schlissel said “It provides educational and internship opportunities for students. It provides employment opportunities for our graduating engineers and other specialties. It involves 6 or 7 different schools and colleges, so it’s really a fantastic project.”

In his speech to the roughly 300 guests in attendance at the opening of Mcity, Schlissel said the University’s groundbreaking research in transportation safety and efficiency is in accordance with the University’s impressive history of innovation.

“Michigan was the first University to own and operate its own hospital, the first to teach aeronautical engineering, the first to create a program in human genetics, and we are the University that tested the Polio vaccine and proved it safe for the world,” Schlissel said. He added that Mcity has similar potential to leave a positive impact on society by preventing driving-related deaths.

Kirk Steudle, director of the Michigan Department of Transportation, also addressed the large crowd, expressing pride in not only the project itself, but also in the partnerships formed by Mcity between industry competitors with a common goal to improve driver safety.

“What is really promising is that many...are fierce competitors working side by side to figure out this mobility challenge for the future,” Steudle said. “At the end of the day, there’s still 33,000 Americans–motorists–that lost their lives last year on highways. The future of automated/connected vehicles holds the promise to drive those numbers down significantly…This is the facility that’s gonna help us get there.”

In her speech to attendees, congresswoman Debbie Dingell (MI–12) said connected and autonomous vehicles could eliminate 80 percent of crash related deaths, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Board.

In addition to Mcity’s impact on advancements in driver safety, Dingell also spoke of the facility’s clear benefits to Michigan’s auto industry and economy.

In an interview with the Daily, Dingell, former president and executive director of Community Relations and Government Relations of GM, said the research and partnerships formed through Mcity will keep the latest automotive technology within Michigan’s borders.

“Transportation’s always been the backbone of Michigan’s economy, and we don’t want to see the cutting edge technology go to any other state,” Dingell said. “This is what happens when you bring University, business, government, academia– all together, and you work together– you stay at the cutting edge.”

In an interview with the Daily, senator Gary Peters (D.–Mich.) said Michigan’s brand new facility will attract top notch transportation innovators from all over the U.S.

“Having this track at the University of Michigan– having University of Michigan’s leadership– will act as a beacon to bring researchers from around the country to Michigan to do their work.”

In his address to the audience, Peters said Mcity would maintain the center of transportation technology in Michigan, rather than in California.

“We are not gonna let Silicon Valley take this technology because this technology is born at the University of Michigan– born in the greater Detroit area, and we’re gonna be the global leader of this technology that will transform mobility,” Peters said.

Peters said he’s been supporting Michigan’s transportation research in Congress by introducing legislation in the Transportation Bill that aims to allow Michigan to use federal money for transportation research, including funding for sensors that are crucial to the infrastructure technology associated with automated vehicles. For instance, with the development of new technology, innovators are designing sensors that alert automated cars of approaching dangers, such as a bridge that is icing over.

Senator Debbie Stabenow (D–Mich.) addressed the fact that, although many may find it difficult to envision a world in which cars completely drive themselves, Michigan innovators and industry experts would show us through findings at Mcity that automated vehicles have the potential to be safer, more efficient and therefore more popular than the current technology.
She equated the concept of self-driving cars in the present to Henry Ford’s revolutionary idea of replacing horse transportation with automobiles at the beginning of the 20th century.

“At the last century, when Henry Ford was first talking about the automobile, the horseless carriage, and everybody said he was crazy– that nothing would replace the horse. We’ve been riding horses since the dawn of civilization, and so nothing was gonna change– except the horse,” Stabenow said.

“So this century we’re used to driving cars, so it’s very hard to imagine that cars will drive us as the next innovation.”

Ann Arbor’s Mayor Christopher Taylor also spoke to attendees of Mcity’s positive impact on the city.

“The Mobility Transportation Center Projects– they will play an important and critical role in assisting communities like Ann Arbor to come up with new solutions for congestion, and, most importantly, these projects will ensure that our community integrates cars, busses, pedestrians and bicycles into a seamless, safe and effective transportation network, and we couldn’t be more excited,” Taylor said.

After government officials and University administrators formally spoke, attendees watched various demonstrations of collaborative projects on the Mcity test site. One such demonstration was the Bosch automatic emergency braking for pedestrians demonstration, in which a radar sensor located on the test vehicle recognized an approaching cyclist, automatically slowing the vehicle to a stop to prevent a collision.

Greg Stevens, Ford’s global manager of automated driving projects, represents Ford within the University’s Mobility Transformation Center. He said the launch of Mcity would greatly benefit Ford because, while the company owns and operates test tracks for improving speed and other vehicle features, it does not have its own mock city.

“We guide what research topics MTC does, so we contribute our experience to say these are the types of challenges we would like MTC to take on and research, and we also benefit from being able to use all this infrastructure around,” Stevens said.

Stevens added Mcity will help Ford develop, in partnership with the University, specific technology they are currently working on to prevent collisions at blind intersections by equipping cars with messaging systems to automatically alert nearby vehicles of their location.

Ryan Eustice, an associate professor of engineering at the University who has been collaborating with Ford, testing automated vehicles, said Mcity is uniquely beneficial to transportation research because it allows researchers to simulate possible collisions and dangerous situations on demand.
Eustice said that, although the state of Michigan allows engineers to test certain cars on public roads, the out-of-the-ordinary accidents that automated cars need to learn how to detect are fairly rare and therefore difficult to gather data from.

“We get to be maximally evil here to the cars, so we get to create a very high density of just weird corner cases that you need to deal with,” Eustice said.

Chris Mullen, Director of Technology Research at State Farm Insurance, also a sponsor of Mcity, said the University’s transportation research marks a turning point not only for the auto industry but for the car insurance industry as well.

“This is an incredibly historic day,” Mullen said. “The need for this kind of experimentation in a real-life environment is critical because the future of mobility is going to be very different than what it looks like today... So our ability to collaborate with the brightest minds in academia, industry, technology, and government– it’s an incredible opportunity and we wanted to be there, as we have for decades, as a leader in auto safety.”

However, Monday marked an important day in history not only for Mcity’s grand opening, but also for an event that occurred 46 years ago: Apollo 11’s successful landing on the moon. Senator Peters compared Mcity’s potential impact on society with the historic date.

“You’re gonna remember this day. Today is the launch of technology that’s gonna transform our country. It’s gonna transform our planet, and it was born right here at the University of Michigan, southeast Michigan, with the partnership of great American companies that are located here in Michigan.”