MCity and the Race to Get Connected Cars on the Road

The University of Michigan unveiled MCity this week to a throng of international media and local dignitaries on hand to check out the $6.5 million, 32-acre controlled environment specifically designed to test the potential of connected and automated vehicle technologies.

The replica city—complete with movable building facades; roundabouts and traffic signals; bike lanes and a bus stop; tree canopies; robotic pedestrians made to behave just as erratically as their real-world counterparts; gravel and trunk line roads; and a limited-access freeway—is the world’s first full-scale simulated urban environment and outdoor lab for testing the connected car.

MCity also features a control network to collect traffic data wirelessly and from a real-time kinematic positioning system. The test site was built by U-M’s Mobility Transformation Center (MTC) in partnership with the Michigan Department of Transportation, and one of the key goals is to put a shared network of connected, automated (including driverless) vehicles on the road in Ann Arbor by 2021.

MCity is also a powerful opening salvo in the race to see who leads the development of connected and autonomous vehicle technology. Many feel it’s Michigan’s race to lose, as the state is home to the domestic auto industry, 375 automobile technology research centers, and the highest per capita concentration of industrial and mechanical engineers in the nation.

The university has already marshaled an impressive number of researchers, government entities, and private companies in getting MCity on its feet—see the sidebar for details on technologies being tested at MCity by industry partners—but there’s real money to be made from the reams of data connected cars will soon be collecting, and the competition to get in on those profits will no doubt be fierce.

Google is running arguably the best-known autonomous vehicle research program from its headquarters in Mountain View, CA, but there’s still plenty of room for a different leader to emerge. At a separate event showcasing autonomous vehicle technology in Ypsilanti, MI, this week, Google execs defended the safety record of the company’s fleet of self-driving cars after one was involved in an accident on July 1 that resulted in minor injuries to its passengers. More testing is needed, program lead Chris Urmson told reporters, before self-driving cars will be able to anticipate the myriad things that could go wrong in real-world driving.

Other major connected and autonomous vehicle testing efforts underway are Virginia Tech’s Virginia Automated Corridors, 70 miles of roadway in the greater Washington, DC, area, and the GoMentum Station in Concord, CA, a 5,000-acre space at a decommissioned naval base about 30 miles from Silicon Valley that counts Mercedes Benz and Honda as industry partners. A smaller, 10-mile test bed has also been established between Tampa and Brandon, FL, led by the Automated Vehicle Institute at the University of South Florida.

Ed Olson is a computer science professor at U-M who also runs a lab with fellow professor Ryan Eustace that is focused on “robot perception, coordination, and planning.” He’s been working with Ford on a fleet of six, full-size Ford Fusion research cars that scientists are attempting to imbue with human-like driving skills. “It’s very exciting to be a part of MCity,” Olson said at the opening event Monday. A lot of the software work for the Ford research cars was done at U-M, and Olson said he’s looking forward to continuing his groundbreaking work under the MCity umbrella.

Olson is heading up an initiative to create a fleet of 3D-printed, autonomous vehicles to ferry people around campus. Students and faculty would be able to summon the cars with a smartphone app. “Everyone is excited about autonomy, but there are a lot of technical problems with transportation on demand,” he explained.

The idea with U-M’s autonomous fleet is to solve those technical problems—for instance, should the cars have one seat or two; how many cars should be handicap-accessible; how long will users be willing to wait for their self-driving cars to arrive after they’ve been summoned; how should a fleet of electric cars be coordinated when each car’s battery is in a different state of charging; which vehicle model should be sent to each user; where should the cars idle when not in service—using Olson’s low-speed vehicles, and then modifying the campus environment to get the cars into service for further fine-tuning. Then, researchers can apply what they’ve learned from the project to MCity as a whole.

“All of these problems are so cool,” Olson said. “It would be a shame to avoid looking at them until autonomy is solved. We want vehicles we can deploy now so when autonomy is ready, we’ve already thought about the social and economic questions.” And if U-M is successful in developing a self-driving fleet for students to use, Olson envisions many more places where they could be used: corporate campuses, retirement facilities, amusement parks, airports, or city centers.

Local Motors, the Chandler, AZ-based company that made a splash in Detroit earlier this year by 3D-printing a car on the floor of the North American International Auto Show, is partnering with Olson’s lab to develop the fleet of autonomous campus cars. Local Motors custom-built a 3D-printed car for use in Olson’s project. It arrived on campus last week and was on display at the MCity event (pictured below). Over the next year, Olson’s team will develop the vehicle’s self-driving capabilities and build a mobile phone interface for use in requesting a ride.

MCity 3D elec car“We went to Ed, and the project timelines were in alignment with what we wanted to deploy, so it seemed like a perfect fit,” said Corey Clothier, an advanced vehicle technologies specialist for Local Motors in Ann Arbor working on the project. “Local Motors wants to develop a vehicle ready for automation, so we’ll work with Ed’s team to find out what’s needed.”

The vehicle for Olson’s project uses a power train from a traditional golf cart, but the rest of the car has been reformulated specifically for the project and is printed using Lego brick plastic reinforced with fiber to make it tougher. Olson said Local Motors represents the ideal partner because of its ability to print custom components within a matter of hours. “With a 3D-printed car, you can experiment and make adjustments very rapidly,” he said.

Olson said his goal is to demo the first self-driving car in U-M’s fleet next April or May: “Hopefully, people will say this is not a stupid thing and we’ll get funding for 20 or 30 vehicles. Until you try it with data from real-world users, you don’t really know what’s going to happen.” … Next Page »

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