Best of the Robo-Cities

As long as the automobile industry has been in existence, it’s needed to use testing facilities.

With our determined progress up the levels of autonomy, of course, the requirement to put systems and hardware through their paces becomes ever more acute. It’s no wonder, then, that a host of testing sites geared towards connected car tech have sprung up across the globe.

Perhaps the best known is Mcity, a facility under the auspices of the University of Michigan and supported by the state’s government. The facility is strategically located near what’s still the heart of the US auto industry. Although Mcity is far from the only modern proving ground in Michigan, that prime location – not to mention an extensive 32-acre site containing both simulated urban and suburban areas – makes it an obvious go-to for the many carmakers and suppliers with a presence in the region. In addition to testing, Mcity also helps fund a variety of connected car research projects, and conducts outreach and education activities.

In an interview with TU-Automotive not long after the facility opened in 2015, its communications director Susan Carney waxed idealistic about its mission. “Gaining a gaining a greater understanding of how consumers respond to automated vehicles is an important step toward widespread use of driverless vehicles to benefit society,” she said.

Mcity’s policy is, understandably, to keep hush-hush about the companies using the site. Names that have seeped out despite the caution include Goodyear and Navya, a French company that produces driverless shuttle buses. Alone, that combination of classic supplier and cutting-edge public transport automaker gives some indication of the prestige Mcity seems to enjoy, not to mention the range of technologies it can test.

When we think “America” and “cars,” in addition to Michigan we often picture California. It was inevitable that this car-stuffed, tech-forward state would be the home of at least a few vehicle testing facilities. One is GoMentum Station, the largest AV testing site in the US at a sprawling 2,100 acres. GoMentum is located within the orbit of both San Francisco and Silicon Valley, and as of early this year it’s owned and operated by the Northern California branch of driver advocacy group Automobile Association of America (AAA).

The facility, originally developed by the Contra Costa country government, contains 20 miles of paved roads, a 7-mile stretch of spine road, plus numerous features such as crossings, roundabouts and railroad tracks. According to the organization’s spokesman Mike Blasky, at the site “We also provide on-site data-capturing equipment to companies to limit the amount of expensive equipment they need to bring to GoMentum when they’re testing.”

This seems to be landing with the facility’s “partners,” i.e. automakers and other companies that use it. The extensive partner list includes such familiar names as Uber, Honda Innovations and Toyota Research Institute. Big plans are afoot for GoMentum. According to Blasky, AAA Northern California will build within it a signal laboratory outfitted with V2V and V2I infrastructure for solutions using these technologies to go through the ringer. The organization is also developing its own autonomous driving assessment program.

Meanwhile, across the Pacific Ocean, the government of South Korea recently unveiled its 80-acre K-City. The twist K-City brings to the story is that it’s the first testing facility specifically designed for AVs that run on 5G networks. Tailoring a site for 5G is a smart move on South Korea’s part, and it should attract not only Asian carmakers and solutions providers but important ones based abroad too. It’s still early days, since K-City opened at the end of last year, but there is rich potential here.

Of course, testing the systems of AVs can occur in the virtual world too. Nvidia, once purely a maker of computer graphics cards but now a player in connected autos, recently veered into the testing segment with its DRIVE Constellation virtual testing system. The company advertises DRIVE Constellation as a solution that can test every aspect of AV functionality – quite a tall order.

“There’s no feasible way to physically road test vehicles in all… situations, nor is road testing on its own sufficiently controllable, repeatable, exhaustive, or fast enough,” said Nvidia’s automotive general manager Avi Greenstein. Virtual testing is also far cheaper and there is zero risk of damage to materiel. It also can boast scale, in order to allow clients to test scenarios with entire fleets of vehicles outfitted with the latest connected car technology.

Toyota employs DRIVE Constellation in its advanced-level solutions. Outside of that, Greenstein stayed mum on the identity of other customers. Regardless, the giant Japanese automaker’s involvement in this early stage is a good sign of the system’s viability and usefulness.

Nobody reading this article needs to be told that carmakers and their key affiliates must make the rubber hit the road with testing, be it virtual or physical. There’s no substitute for taking a vehicle out for a spin to see how it performs and what can be improved. That basic need to ride and evaluate will never go away. It’s as necessary and as classic as the automobile industry itself.

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