Simulation for Automation: U of M Builds Model City to Test Self-Driving Cars

Simulation for Automation: U of M Builds Model City to Test Self-Driving Cars

June 27

Ann Arbor is known as one of the more progressive and forward-thinking cities in America. Whether it’s taking a liberal approach on societal issues or adopting new technology, this lively college town is often one of the first to move on groundbreaking initiatives. True to form, Ann Arbor is taking a huge step in helping push the self-driving car trend forward.

The very heart of Ann Arbor, the University of Michigan is adding another degree of prestige to its esteemed campus in the form of a testing facility for autonomous vehicles. But calling this thing a mere facility may not be doing it justice. It’s more like a model city designed to simulate the environment and conditions these self-sufficient vehicles will undoubtedly face when deployed into real traffic scenarios. Driverless cars beside people with questionable driving skills really is a freaky thought. This city within a city aims to help ensure that they’re ready before going mainstream.

U of M is staging a 32-acre testing ground complete with building structures, intersections, traffic stops, and even the stifling construction sites Michigan motorists know all too well. The university’s crack IT staff is writing code that will enable these vehicles to respond to the events simulated in the city model.  According to reports, U of M researchers are preparing for a dual driving environment Ann Arbor expects to see by 2021. Looks like they’re getting a nice head start because the plan is for the imitation town to be up, running, and open some time this fall.

The facility U of M named the Mobility Transformation Center will also serve as an experimental grounds for networked vehicles. Using a technology called vehicle to vehicle (V2V), these automobiles communicate with other connected cars to share information on traffic conditions, speeds, stoppages, and more. In Michigan, for example, one car could let another know that Interstate-96 is at a standstill before approaching the freeway ramp. The second vehicle could then avoid the jam and find another route in order to reach their destination in timely fashion.

Is Google Involved?

Autonomous cars have become a scorching hot topic since reports of Google’s project began to surface. For years apparently, the search giant has been working on perfecting a driverless car that has no steering wheel, gas or brake pedal, and literally operates with the push of button. The vehicle is powered by Google Maps and GPS, which handle navigation while allowing the passenger to visualize

the route on the dashboard display. Google’s car could be tested on California roads later this summer, but groups like Consumer Watchdog fear that driverless technology isn’t quite ready for live traffic.

No matter how advanced it may be, putting software technology behind the wheel raises legitimate cause for concern. U of M is playing its role on the safety side by simulating an environment that tests the ability of autonomous vehicles to interpret road signs, merge lanes, navigate through intersections, and perform basic, yet vital tasks like stopping at traffic lights. Simulated pedestrians that may conjure thoughts of Meta-Cooler will eventually be added to the environment to further improve this automated driving technology before it’s incorporated into the real life streets.

While it is unclear if Google will take advantage of the Ann Arbor facility, the U of M project already has the backing of a few auto giants. General Motors, Toyota, and Ford are included in the group of companies cited as supporters of the project. Speaking of Ford, its Fusion hybrid will be one of the first self-driving cars deployed into this new testing grounds. U of M scientists are said to be working with researchers from Ford to create sensors and mapping technology that aids the hybrid in navigating the simulated cityscape.

The driving landscape will likely look a lot different in another ten years or so as we start sharing the road with self-driving cars. It’s not a matter of if, but when. Will you embrace this trend, or is it a case of technology moving too fast, too soon?

Photo Credit: Becky Stern via Flickr