It’s a nightmare for ‘Suicide Seb’ at Mcity!

As far as vehicle transportation is concerned, the city of the future is here. Appropriately located not far from Detroit is Mcity, an outdoor testing facility for connected and automated driving features. It is the first resource of its kind in the world.

It’s a $10M (£7.1M), 32-acre site honeycombed by four-plus miles of roads, meant to simulate both urban and suburban driving environments. Those 32 acres are stuffed with a wealth of landscape features intended to test the widest variety of driving conditions and hazards in such areas.

There’s a robot pedestrian – the unfortunate Sebastian – who is typically programmed to dart out suddenly, without warning, in front of a test car. There’s a railroad crossing, a four-way intersection, and a stretch of ersatz motorway. A variety of roadside obstacles and hazards crowd the landscape, and most can be moved into the most car-interfering positions imaginable.

To give vehicle sensors a serious run for their money, a signal-blocking metal tunnel is used to simulate a motorway underpass and a nearby road covered with a fake tree canopy is used for the same purpose. Meanwhile, Mcity’s Main Street (yes, most of the thoroughfares have names) is fronted by a set of building facades. These can be moved around, in order to imitate different building configurations.

The thought and effort that has gone into creating Mcity’s environment is impressive, down to the details. Some of its road signs are defaced by graffiti, for example, while certain lane markings have been deliberately faded.

The fake town is operated under the auspices of the University of Michigan. It’s a project created by the University, in conjunction with the Michigan Department of Transportation. Helping enormously is private-sector donations, chiefly from the car manufacturers and technology specialists that stand to gain the most from Mcity’s use. General Motors, Ford, Toyota, Nissan, Honda and BMW are all “leadership circle members” who pay at least $1M over the course of a three-year cycle. The tech side of the equation is also well represented in the circle with companies such as Navistar, Qualcomm and Verizon.

Turning away from the pure carmaker/tech dynamic, the list includes insurance firm State Farm and auto parts kingpin Delphi. Any sponsor can use the facility for testing their products or solutions but they are obligated to put in at least four hours at a time. Mcity also has an “affiliate member” tier of enterprises that pay from $150,000 over that three-year period. Among these companies are logistics giant FedEx, NXP Semiconductors and Subaru.

Mcity opened last summer, with Ford being the first manufacturer to test one of its models (a modified Fusion) on the site. In its press release talking up that fact, the auto giant said that the new facility “provides another challenging, yet safe, urban environment to repeatedly check and hone these new technologies”.

It’s not only the shifting facades and movable obstacles that make Mcity a good proving ground for autonomous driving. Since the facility is located in Michigan, one of the most northernmost American states, it is subject to the whims of the weather. So cars can be put through their paces in the ugliest of conditions. Determined pioneer Ford did a round of testing this past January with the sensors of its cars covered in ice and snow, and the vehicles travelling on Mcity roads made hazardous by Mother Nature.

The findings from the study will probably find their way into the hands of other car makers. That’s not because Ford necessarily has a spy in its ranks, it’s because the leadership circle members meet every month to discuss the results of their testing. Although all companies certainly want to dominate the connected/autonomous car market, it’s still early days and just now they have more to gain by sharing knowledge rather than squirreling it away for themselves.

And, as these are early days, we can expect grander testing facilities to come on-stream in the not-too-distant future. Close to Mcity is a sprawling, rusty old factory complex called Willow Run, once operated by Ford for the purpose of making B-24 bombers during World War II, but now owned by a division of GM tasked with getting rid of unwanted real estate. The Michigan government aims to buy the 332-acre site, with the aim of developing it into a much larger version of Mcity. The two facilities would operate simultaneously, with Willow Run envisioned as the site for volume testing and Mcity useful for evaluating the latest cutting-edge solutions.

Either way, our autonomous driving future moves a few car lengths closer to reality with Mcity, not to mention Willow Run (if Michigan’s plans are realised) and the other facilities that will surely follow in their wake.

No technology will move very far, or be safe enough, if not rigorously tested and that’s especially true of connected/automated/autonomous vehicles.

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