There's something eerie about an entirely empty cityscape. In most sizeable towns you can spot signs of inhabitation – a lone pedestrian, a twitching curtain – at any time of day or night. The only time we see entirely uninhabited cities tends to be in post-apocalyptic movies.
So watching the footage of Mcity, the fake city created by the University of Michigan (UM) as a testing ground for driverless cars, is an oddly unsettling experience. As a single car hums its way around the empty streets, you half expect a swarm of zombies to appear over the horizon, or for Harrison Ford to throw himself into a fridge just as a blinding light appears in the distance.
Honestly, check this out and tell me you don't get the urge to duck and cover:
Mcity, which formally opened yesterday, is a joint project between academia, business and government. It’s backed by the UM's Mobility Transformation Centre (MTC), the Michigan state Department of Transportation, and a whole gaggle of car makers, insurers and tech firms, who've all thrown money into the pot because they’d like to find out what a world without drivers means for their businesses*.
The new city, which is at the university's campus in Ann Arbor, includes everything you might want in a modern, post-apocalyptic landscape. There are eerily silent street cafes:
Crossings at which no one seems to cross:
Even a roundabout:
In all the site is 32 acres in size and cost $10mn to build. It contains a whole raft of different junction types (T-junctions, crossroads, those with traffic lights, those without) and road types (everything from meandering gravel paths right up to a free way). In some parts of Mcity, there are trees or building facades to block the signals; in others it's open to the sky.
Here's a map:
The purpose is to test driverless car technologies in as many different environments as possible. The researchers have even defaced some road signs by graffiti, or deliberately faded lane markings, just to see how the cars react to the sort of things they’ll encounter on real roads.
The project will test different levels of automated technology, too, from those that still have drivers to take the wheel, right up to those that are essentially robots. It'll test vehicles that communicate to other vechicles (so called V2V); it’ll test vehicles that communicate to nearby infrastructure (V2I).
Xerox alone, the photocopying giant that's since grown into a broader tech services company, is testing out no fewer than three different types of technology: one to help drivers park; a "smart parking solution" aimed at helping cities make the most efficient use of space; and a "vehicle passenger detection system", which counts the number of humans in cars and allows traffic authorities to monitor whether people are cheating high occupancy vehicle lanes.
Here's a video explaining the project:
And here's another, showing the testing ground in action:
The MTC isn't just testing driverless cars out in this imaginary environment, though: it's also deploying a few of them onto the roads of south eastern Michigan, to see how they’ll cope. The ultimate plan, to which all this is building up, will see to 2,000 automated vehicles pootling around the streets of Ann Arbor itself.
Some days it feels a lot like the future has already arrived, doesn't it?
*Lists of corporate sponsors are boring, but for those who are interested and/or their press officers: Delphi Automatic, DENSO Corporation, Econolite Group, Inc. Ford Motor Co., General Motors Co., Honda Motor Co., Iteris, Inc., Navistar, Inc., Nissan Motor Co., Ltd., Qualcomm Technologies, Inc., Robert Bosch LLC, State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company, Toyota Motor Corp., Verizon Communications, Inc., Xerox Corp.
All images courtesy of the University of Michigan.