Far away from the hills and hot weather of Silicon Valley, where Google has made headlines with their driverless car testing, the University of Michigan is helping bring the national spotlight on the race to build driverless cars to the state.

On the University’s North Campus there’s a 32-acre urban environment with freeways, dirt roads, road signs and highway tunnels — known as “Mcity.” The field grabbed national and international attention when it opened in July 2015, becoming the world’s first site designed for the purpose of testing driverless cars.

But why here?

The University did not build Mcity alone. Mcity was designed and developed by the University’s Mobility Transformation Center, a research partnership between industry and government to improve transportation safety and sustainability. The Michigan Department of Transportation partnered with MTC to create and help fund Mcity, and the site is currently led by corporate partners like Ford, Toyota, State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance and General Motors.

In partnership with prominent auto industries in Southeast Michigan and the city, state and federal governments, Mcity represents the ways local leaders are working to usher in a new era of transportation in the same area that Henry Ford redefined mobility over a century ago.


How the University leads driverless car development

Alongside Mcity’s various highways, intersections and dirt roads sit graffiti covered road signs, steep hills and building facades that can be brought just inches away from the road — all details meant to create life-like scenarios to challenge autonomous vehicles.

Ford became the first motor company to test an autonomous vehicle in Mcity in November 2015, and they used the site again to challenge their technology in snowy conditions in January 2016.

Jim McBride, Ford technical leader for autonomous vehicles, said Mcity was an ideal site because of its simulated imperfection, creating odd scenarios driverless cars might experience in the real world.

“Mcity allows us the ability to create that situation and find a safe environment and test it repeatedly,” McBride said.

Creating all kinds of life-like challenges for driverless cars is exactly what Mcity was designed for, according to Huei Peng, director of MTC.

MTC and Mcity were created in an effort to expand development of automation and connected vehicles both at the University and in the state. Gradual steps in advancing non-driver controlled technology, as well as in connecting cars to each other and their environment like an Internet, are ways in which engineers are moving toward fully autonomous vehicles.

“Mcity is a test track designed to have future connected automated vehicle concepts in mind,” Peng said. 

Cars on the market today already have partially driverless vehicle features. Cruise control, automatic braking and assisted parking systems are features in a vehicle that occur without direct driver input, referred to as “automated.”

SAE International — originally founded as the Society of Automotive Engineers — characterizes the degree of automation in on-road vehicles in six levels, zero being completely driver-controlled and five being completely system-controlled. A driverless car is a vehicle with a system that controls all dynamic driving tasks under all roadway and environmental conditions.

Many cars on the road are at a level one standard for automation, and include features such as cruise control and automated braking. In the next few years, however, Peng said there will be an emergence of level two and level three features — like highway cruise, traffic jam assist and automated valet parking — in production vehicles.

Engineers of driverless cars are also developing wireless connection channels, called dedicated short-range communications, to allow cars to communicate with each other on the road. Peng explained that when personal computers are connected to each other, every PC becomes more useful; similarly, cars can reduce risk and improve efficiency if they connect to other vehicles.

“If we continue to broadcast the vehicle’s motion to other cars, it will make traffic safer, potentially more efficient, and (lead to) less energy consumption,” Peng said.

Even before Mcity garnered international attention, the University had been a pioneer in mobility transformation research.

Noting research on tire dynamics, engines and vehicle safety developed at the University, Peng said vehicle design and vehicle manufacturing have been pillars of strength at the College of Engineering for years.

“We have been the top, if not one of the top, automotive engineering research education providers among other universities in the world,” he said. “We will continue to do that; there is no reason we give up that tradition of strength.”


Michigan as a hotbed for mobility transformation

Since being elected to Congress in 2014, Sen. Gary Peters (D–Michigan) has joined the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and has actively promoted legislation to allow for more funding to implement for vehicle-to-infrastructure technology. According to Peters, these efforts are to ensure the state of Michigan’s influence in the future of mobility.

“This technology is incredibly important for our safety and it represents the future of the auto industry,” Peters said. “We have to make every effort to make sure it continues to be centered in Michigan.”

Alongside Peters’ efforts at the federal level, MDOT and state legislature have been proactive in allowing for driverless car testing on the roads. In December 2013, Gov. Rick Snyder (R) signed into law a bill approving the testing of driverless cars on Michigan roads, joining only a handful of other states in approving such legislation.

Matt Smith, program manager at MDOT, said because of the auto industry’s location within the state, the Michigan state legislature has allowed for automated vehicle research on state roads long before driverless cars existed.

“The state of Michigan has allowed experimental technology on roadways for many, many years,” Smith said.

Even within Ann Arbor, local government has pushed for testing experimental automated technology. In 2013, Ann Arbor City Council approved a $622,884 federal grant to install telecommunications fiber, sensors and electronic equipment in public intersections to allow for vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication in driverless cars.

Peters said the reason legislators are interested in pursuing autonomous technology in the state is to keep jobs related to the auto industry within Michigan.

Kevin Kerrigan, senior vice president of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, noted that the automotive industry continues to be the largest industry in Michigan, attracting many businesses and growing local jobs. Currently, one out of every 24 jobs in the state comes from the auto industry, according to the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Jobs within the auto industry increased by 67 percent after the recession ended, compared to 10.6 percent gain in all jobs.

“A big percentage of jobs in Michigan are directly related to the auto industry,” Peters said. “If we were to lose some of the technological advantage of advanced computer systems related to cars, I would be concerned we would start losing automotive jobs to a different region of the country.”

McBride said Ford’s interest in pursuing driverless car development was in part to ensure the company stays relevant when the technology advances. Kodak and Nokia, he said, are examples of companies that could not adapt to the changes in the telecommunication and digital world, which led to their breakdowns.

“It’s very relevant right now that we maintain ownership of the software and ownership of the technology if we want to be viable in the future of transportation industry,” McBride said. “Every company wants to be relevant in the long term, and that’s not different for Ford.”

Michigan has recently taken a step further in leading the charge for automated and connected vehicles by announcing the American Center for Mobility in January — a joint partnership between government, business and University leaders to help build another driverless car testing site — this time, at 335 acres. The new site will be placed in Willow Run, where B-24 bombers were made for troops in a Henry Ford factory during World War II.

John Maddox, assistant director of MTC and recently named president and CEO of ACM, said the new testing site was designed due to the success and demand of Mcity. While Mcity is primarily designed to test early stage research, once vehicles “graduate” from the smaller testing site, they can use the larger testing site for product development.

Maddox said Michigan’s location as the birthplace and home to the auto industry is one of a kind in the world, and puts the state in the center of driverless car development.

“There is a significant concentration of expertise and activity happening in Southeast Michigan,” Maddox said. “In fact, I would say it’s unique in the world, not just in the United States, for having such a concentration in a local area of so many companies and individuals and universities working on this automotive technology.”


The future of autonomous vehicles and robotics

When asked whether the emergence of connected, autonomous vehicles will lead to a transportation revolution similar to when Henry Ford helped bring cars to the mass market in 1908, Maddox said no — it would be bigger.

He equated the growth of connected, driverless cars to how the Internet helped connect people in new ways, and brought about new job opportunities. In the same way, he said, autonomous vehicles have the potential to transform mobility to allow for a whole new economic sector.

“We will see an Internet for transportation and an Internet for cars,” he said. “Just like the Internet brought tremendous new business opportunities, new business models, the same thing will happen with the Internet for transportation.

With driverless cars, mobility will also come to groups unable to drive vehicles like the elderly and disabled, Smith said.

“We do believe that automated vehicle technology is certainly going make the roads a lot safer,” he said. “It’s going to increase mobility, allow more traffic flow and probably allow mobility access to people who can’t drive.”

Peng also highlighted the safety benefits of driverless car technology, noting how right now motor vehicles currently kill about 33,000 people in the United States and 1.2 million people in the world per year. He said by connecting cars together and allowing them to “speak” to each other and to the infrastructure around them, risky behavior like emergency braking, illegal turns, wrong way driving and running red lights can be dramatically reduced.

“All those behaviors, in theory, if we continue to broadcast the vehicle’s motion to other cars, it will make traffic safer, potentially more efficient, and (lead to) less energy consumption,” Peng said.

However, machine autonomy does not have to stop at vehicles.

Aerospace Engineering prof. Ella Atkins, who chairs the graduate program for Robotics at the University, said students have a lot of interest and excitement for autonomous machines. 

Atkins said even aside from high-profile autonomous technology like driverless cars, small, low-powered sensors and computers will allow for a flurry of autonomous technology.

“There are a lot of opportunities for robots that never get tired, and are very patient with people not only in driving their cars for them, but also in helping them with everyday tasks,” Atkins said.

Peng, too, noted the way autonomous technology beyond self-driving has the potential to reduce ever-increasing human errors like drunk driving and texting on the road. Though he cautioned driverless cars are still far from the mass market, the technology is advancing rapidly and exponentially.

“We humans are distracted more and more every day,” Peng said. “Robots are improving every day. Guess who will win the race?”

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