Self-driving and digitally connected cars are the wave of the future, but how do you test them without risking personal injury or property damage? A consortium of automakers, government and the University of Michigan College of Engineering are building a multi-million dollar simulated city for precisely that purpose on a 32 acre site at the University’s North Campus in Ann Arbor .
The mock-up of an urban area will feature both asphalt and concrete roadways, building facades, traffic signs, stoplights, merge lanes, traffic circles, a railroad crossing, sidewalks, and streetlights. There will be simulated construction zones and other obstacles for the experimental autonomous cars to deal with. There may even be mechanical “pedestrians” strolling the sidewalks. No word on whether they will be chatting on cell phones or listening to their iPods as death motors towards them.
The University calls it a “transportation experiment” where autonomous cars can be tested in close to real world conditions, without being in the real world. The first car tested will be an automated Ford Fusion Hybrid designed to find a path to “a future in which humans stay behind the wheel and automated technologies enhance their abilities”. Later vehicles will probe the possibilities of even more advanced cars which require no human input at all, like the featureless Google Car.
As home to America’s Big Three automakers, Michigan wants to be a leader in the development of self driving, interactive cars. It is paying for the research facility along with contributions from the car companies involved and several local governments.The Transportation Research Facility is expected to being operations in the fall of 2014.