Michigan Has a Fake City to Test Self-Driving Cars

Mcity has a certain resemblance to a movie set. . (Photo: Austin Thomason/University of Michigan Photography)

Remember "The Truman Show," the 1988 Jim Carrey vehicle in which it turns out his whole life is a TV show and he’s living on a stage set? That’s kind of what’s happening at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor with the 32-acre Mcity, a simulated urban zone set up to test self-driving and connected cars.

Mcity aerial
This is Mcity from the air. It looks real, but the people are likely to be cardboard cutouts. (Photo: University of Michigan)

Don’t believe everything you see in Mcity. There are two- and four-lane roads (with concrete, asphalt, brick and dirt surfaces), adjustable street lighting, sidewalks and fire hydrants, crosswalks, curb cuts, bike lanes, a railroad crossing, a pair of roundabouts, highway entrance ramps, and lots and lots of parking spaces. Buildings may look real if you’re squinting, but they’re fakes that are moveable depending on the test. (In fact, over on TreeHugger, Lloyd says it reminds him of the Universal back lot.) The metal bridge and tunnel are there for testing the limits of sensors and wireless transmissions.

Jim Carrey in The Truman Show
Jim Carrey in "The Truman Show": He was the star in a fabricated world. (Photo: Paramount Pictures)

Jeremy Carlson, a senior analyst at IHS Automotive, says that dedicated test sites like Mcity are a way “to begin moving out of the lab and onto the road, but ultimately they are no match for the complexity of live roads.” And that’s why companies like Google (NASA’s Moffett Field) and Daimler (Concord Naval Weapons Station), which have their own test centers in California, are also keen to test in public roads (now legal in four states, plus Washington, D.C.).

Volvo may be the boldest automaker when it comes to testing on the world’s active streets, and is quietly gearing up its on-the-road DriveMe project in home base, Gothenburg, Sweden, with 100 autonomous XC90s and real commuters. That project starts in 2017. Volvo is also conducting the world’s first Southern Hemisphere driverless car trials, near Adelaide, Australia, in November.

Volvo self-driving car tests
Volvo is testing its autonomous cars in its own Drive Me experiment on the streets of Sweden, starting in 2017. (Photo: Volvo)

Mcity has competitors in Sweden and Japan, but Mobility Transformation Center (MTC) director Peter Sweatman says the Ann Arbor site is one of the world’s most advanced. It’s designed to “hyper-accelerate” the process of getting self-driving cars on the road, he said. Toyota is testing at Mcity, even though it has its own “city” in Japan. A big advantage is the chance to interact with autonomous cars from other automakers, USA Today said. Carlson agrees.

"Having the variety there, and the ability to discuss and exchange ideas is very appealing to a lot of automakers," he told me.

Mcity graphic
Mcity has conditions to simulate just about anything an autonomous car could encounter. (Photo: University of Michigan)

Ford has been testing cars at Mcity since last November, before the site was even finished. According to Ryan Eustice, a University of Michigan engineering professor, the site is set up to really test cars’ limits — with, for instance, a pedestrian darting out from behind a bus. Will the self-driving car “see” her and stop in time?

Automakers active at Mcity, in the Leadership Circle, include Ford, GM, Honda, Toyota and Nissan, as well as suppliers Delphi, DENSO, Navistar, Qualcomm, Verizon and Xerox. MTC designed Mcity with the Michigan Department of Transportation.

Sweatman is a true believer in the transformative nature of self-driving cars, which should dramatically reduce road injuries and deaths. “Our cities will be much better to live in, our suburbs will be much better to live in,” he said. “These technologies truly open the door the 21st century mobility.” Here's a closer look on video: