At first sight, Mcity near Ann Arbor, Michigan looks just like any other U.S. town or city. However, look closer and you will notice that the buildings are merely facades and the sidewalks, eerily empty. In fact, the only things you will encounter are cars zipping around, many with no humans at the helm. Welcome to the world's first car city - a 32-acre vehicle haven created by the University of Michigan to test new automotive technology.
Among the new technologies that will be tested in this unique city is automated communications - either from vehicle to vehicle (V2V), vehicle to traffic infrastructure (V2I) or vehicle to pedestrian (V2P). Yes, that means future cars will be able to "converse" with other cars, pedestrians or cyclists, and even traffic lights.
Researchers hope that such communication will help avoid unnecessary and often fatal accidents. For example, if a car runs a red light, a message to the traffic signal could delay the red light across, from turning green for a few seconds. This simple action would help prevent a major collision. Similarly, communication about an upcoming cyclist or pedestrian would alert the driver and perhaps even the vehicle, causing it to brake automatically.
Though these are certainly cool, the most cutting-edge technology that will be tested at Mcity is automated or driverless cars. While several states including California and Michigan allow testing of driverless cars on regular streets, they require a human inside to take control if necessary. At Mcity, the cars can truly be autonomous.
This means that they can be tested to make the right decisions when faced with unexpected hurdles like identifying road signs covered with graffiti or obscured in some other way. The vehicles will also be subjected to obstructions like construction roadblocks as well as other situations that require human decision-making.
Of course, a driverless car's success in a simulated city is no guarantee of its performance in the real world that is filled with irrational human drivers. As Google discovered, a logical program that abides by the rules of the road is not always sufficient. For example, while the driverless car was "taught" the regulations of a four-way stop, it did not know to inch forward to indicate its intention of being the next one to leave. As a result, the Google cars ended up spending inordinate amounts of time trying to get across four-way stops. While they have been reprogrammed now, a glitch like this would have never been discovered in Mcity's logical, human-free environment.
Nevertheless, given that all the main car manufacturers like General Motors, Honda, and Ford, are building autonomous vehicles, laboratories like Mcity are crucial to safely test the revolutionary technology.
Resources: wired.com, arstechnica.com,umich.edu