Crash-Testing Driverless Cars in a Robot City

A Michigan mini-metropolis will put driverless cars through their paces

Illustration: Viktor Hachmang

A mother pushing a baby carriage jaywalks across a busy city street. Cutting between two parked cars and partially obscured by a bus, she edges her stroller into traffic before freezing as a speeding car bears down on her. Will the car stop in time? Or will it mow down mother and child? It doesn’t really matter: The mom is a robot, and the car is a driverless vehicle cruising down a fake street in a mock town.

Welcome to M City, a soon-to-open 23-acre mini-metropolis at the University of Michigan, where automakers can test autonomous cars to prepare for the driverless future expected within a decade. Seeking to replicate a modern city’s chaos—traffic jams, unpredictable pedestrians, weaving cyclists—M City starts running on July 20 and has carmakers and tech companies queuing up to conduct research on its roads.

“We’ve been inundated with requests for visits and demonstrations,” says Peter Sweatman, who oversees M City, a collaboration between the university’s Transportation Research Institute, the Michigan Department of Transportation, and big automakers including Ford Motor, General Motors, and Toyota Motor.

Until now, tests of autonomous cars have been conducted on public roads or private proving grounds. Google’s self-driving Toyota Priuses, equipped with laser radar saucers on their roofs, are a common sight in Silicon Valley. Other automakers study robot cars on old test tracks designed to evaluate how fast new models can run laps or how well they handle with humans at the wheel. But such testing doesn’t provide a controlled environment to evaluate how autonomous cars cope with the vagaries of everyday driving.

M City sits amid towering pines in the Detroit suburb of Ann Arbor, a short hop from the technology labs of multiple carmakers. Once completed this summer, the $6.5 million facility will be outfitted with 40 building facades, angled intersections, a traffic circle, a bridge, a tunnel, gravel roads, and plenty of obstructed views. There’s even a four-lane highway with entrance and exit ramps to test how cars without a driver would merge.

“Mechatronic pedestrians” who occasionally pop out into traffic will provide a critical—and bloodless—measure of whether sensors and automatic brakes can react in time to avoid running down a real person. As in a Hollywood backlot, building facades can be rearranged to add to the chaos confronting the chip-controlled vehicles.

Eventually, hundreds of robot cars will ply M City’s urban byways in all seasons and weather conditions. “We would never do any dangerous or risky tests on the open road, so this will be a good place to test some of the next technology,” says Hideki Hada, general manager for electronic systems at Toyota’s Technical Center in Ann Arbor. “A big challenge is intersections in the city, because there are vehicles, pedestrians, and bicycles together with complex backgrounds with buildings and connections to infrastructure. That’s why this is really important.”

Self-driving cars that move in harmony by sensing one another and the environment are expected to one day ease congestion and improve road safety. With the majority of people expected to move to megacities globally in the next 25 years, chip-controlled robo taxis could drive closer together, carrying more people in fewer vehicles. The cars will also let commuters multitask while traveling, boosting productivity.

The market for driverless technology—everything from collision-avoidance sensors to microchips capable of processing life-or-death decisions in a millisecond—will grow to $42 billion annually by 2025, and self-driving cars may account for a quarter of global auto sales by 2035, according to Boston Consulting Group. That helps explain why Ford, GM, and Toyota, as well as Honda Motor and Nissan Motor, are lending their technical expertise to M City. It’s also why tech giants Apple and Google are developing their own driverless cars.

In coming years, federal, state, and city officials will have to decide how roadways should be designed, lighted, and controlled in a world with self-driving cars. Will road signs and traffic lights be necessary? What happens in a power failure? The search for answers is what led the Michigan Department of Transportation to pay $3 million of M City’s construction costs. The university picked up the rest.

Audi’s driverless A7 concept model, shown at the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show, will likely be tested on M City’s streets.
Audi’s driverless A7 concept model, shown at the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show, will likely be tested on M City’s streets.

Automakers aren’t waiting for all the results. Tesla Motors plans to offer a self-steering version of its Model S sedan this summer, and GM says it will introduce hands-free highway driving technology on a Cadillac in two years. The first totally self-driving vehicles will likely arrive on public roadways within five years, Ford Chief Executive Officer Mark Fields said in January.

Daimler’s Mercedes-Benz already sells a system that can pilot a car on the freeway if the driver keeps a hand on the wheel and by 2016 will have a hands-free system, according to BCG. Honda, Hyundai Motor, and Toyota’s Lexus line each offer autonomous features that help steer and stop their cars.

While Toyota has a city test course in Japan that replicates driving conditions there, M City will give the automaker a chance to try out technology in a more hectic U.S. environment. And it allows Toyota to experiment alongside other carmakers testing their own autonomous cars—something many believe will speed adoption of common standards for such vehicles. “The value is that it’s open to the public and other researchers,” Hada says. “That’s the interesting opportunity.”

Since the Michigan test facility is deep within the snow belt, M City’s managers will leave plenty of the white stuff around to mimic the patchy snow removal typical of big U.S. cities. Snow and rain wreak havoc on sensors, and researchers have yet to figure out how to make them see through a blinding winter squall. “The all-weather test will very much be a benefit,” says Ron Szabo, director for software services engineering at Delphi Automotive, which supplies car electronics.

Already the university, automakers, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are testing 3,000 Web-connected cars on regular Ann Arbor roads, monitoring their ability to communicate road congestion and local weather. M City research will eventually give those cars the ability to sense one another and nearby traffic signals. “On the controlled site we can test the failure of a traffic light,” says Szabo. “In the real-life situation, you are certainly not going to make that happen.”

The bottom line: Automakers are eager to test their robot cars in the $6.5 million driverless city being built by the University of Michigan.

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