The midwestern state hopes its real-life SimCity will facilitate the development of automated vehicles.

The University of Michigan’s Engineering College, through its Mobility Transformation Center, is building a real-life SimCity to test new automated vehicle technologies in a realistic off-roadway environment.

The college says the move is an essential step before a significant number of highly automated vehicles can be deployed safely on actual roadways.

The research team has been working with the Michigan Department of Transportation to design a unique 30-acre test facility for evaluating the capabilities of connected and automated vehicles and systems.

The Mobility Transformation Facility (MTF) simulates the broad range of complex circumstances that vehicles encounter in urban and suburban environments. It includes approximately three lane-miles of roads with intersections, traffic signs and signals, sidewalks, benches, simulated buildings, street lights, and obstacles such as construction barriers.

Mobility Transformation Center

Both roadway and roadside attributes will be completely realistic, providing a wide variety of real-life scenarios, and include:

  • Various road surfaces (concrete, asphalt, brick, dirt)
  • A variety of curve radii and ramps
  • Two, three, and four-lane roads
  • Roundabouts and tunnels
  • A variety of signage and traffic control devices
  • Fixed, variable street lighting
  • Cross walks, lane delineators, curb cuts, bike lanes, grade crossings
  • Fixed and movable buildings
  • A mechanical pedestrian

The idea is to ensure that driverless cars work as a networked group as opposed to individually operating based only on their own sensors.

“The type of testing we’re talking about doing – it’s not possible to do today in the university infrastructure,” said Ryan Eustice, an associate professor of naval architecture and marine engineering. “Every time a vehicle comes around the loop, it can hit something unusual. That will give us a leg up on getting these vehicles mature and robust and safe.”

Mobility Transformation Center

Driverless cars being tested in demo city

“Rapid advances in such diverse areas as connected vehicle systems, driverless vehicles, shared vehicles and advanced propulsion systems have brought us to the cusp of a revolution that will transform mobility worldwide,” said Stephen Forrest, vice president for research at the University. “The goal of the MTC is to draw on U-M’s broad strengths in engineering, urban planning, energy technology, information technology, policy and social sciences to accelerate progress toward a working system that synthesizes these continuing advances.”

Driverless vehicle technology is progressing rapidly. Earlier this year, Volvo announced that it was experimenting with the use of roads embedded with magnets to guide the movements of driverless vehicles at a testing facility in Hallered, Sweden.

Google has unveiled its computerised self-driving car which features no steering wheel, brake or accelerator, just buttons to start, pull-over, stop and a computer screen to show the route, which the vehicle navigates by means of GPS and Google Maps. Prototypes should be ready for testing in California very soon.

Meanwhile, engineers at Oxford University are developing a car that can memorise a route by recognizing its surroundings and that gives the driver the choice of engaging an auto-pilot feature when it runs that route again.

The Michigan facility is expected to be ready for use later this year.