The University of Michigan is building a fake city for driverless cars

A mock-up of the facility on the University’s north campus. Image: University of Michigan.

As the UK tries to figure out a way for driverless cars to legally and safely take to public roads, the University of Michigan has set come up with a handy, if costly, alternative. Instead of letting the cars loose on real roads, they’re building a replica city as a testing facility.

The “city” is currently being constructed at the engineering department’s Mobility Transformation Facility, and will cover 32 acres. (That’s around 0.05 square miles, so it’s not exactly New New York). According to the project’s website, it’ll include merge lanes, traffic lights, roundabouts, a railroad crossing, and “eventually even a mechanical pedestrian”. Here’s a diagram:


The intention is that the facility will allow researchers to see how well the cars fare with unexpected situations: “tricky traffic signal timings, or a pedestrian stepping into the intersection at just the wrong time,” as Edwin Olson, an assistant professor at the university, puts it.

The replica city should be up and running by the autumn. Initially it’ll be used to test a Ford Fusion car, which is only partially automated (i.e. there’s still someone in the drivers’ seat). But the researchers also plan to test completely automated vehicles soon.  

It all sounds a little on the Bladerunner side: ­give them their own city and next thing you know, they’ll be demanding their freedom. According to a Tech Times article, some critics have even called the facility “the ‘Hunger Games’ for driverless vehicles”, which doesn’t sit well with the article’s author, Joseph Mayton. He retorts:

“The driverless vehicles hope not for death, but a birth of findings and understanding in order to make cars without drivers a real, viable solution for the future.”

If we were conspiracy theorists, we’d say that sounds like a manifesto, written by an emissary of our new robot-car overlords. But we’re not, so. 


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