Remember Doom Town in that Indiana Jones movie, the fake city with fake people built to test nuclear bombs? Now there is a 32 acre fake city in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to test the self-driving cars that might just nuke the Detroit car industry. It's called Mcity, described by the University of Michigan:
Mcity is a 32-acre simulated urban and suburban environment that includes a network of roads with intersections, traffic signs and signals, streetlights, building facades, sidewalks and construction obstacles. It is designed to support rigorous, repeatable testing of new technologies before they are tried out on public streets and highways.
The Google folks are kind of strutting their stuff,” Peters said. “They’ve got nothing on us. This is the center of the universe. This is Michigan, it’s not California. We’re not going to let Silicon Valley take this technology.
But it doesn't look like a simulation of any urban environment I have ever seen. It's the fake facades that get me. Bloomberg says that they want to "replicate modern urban chaos with traffic jams and unpredictable pedestrians, alongside suburban streetscapes, superhighways and rural roads." But the the whole layout appears to be a suburban typology and then they throw a few painted flats in. Most of it is made of suburban roundabouts and bridges and highway entrances and there is one block of so-called urbanity. This is not the simulation of a town, this is the Universal back lot.
Real urbanism is chaotic and random. But here, it's Groundhog day. As Peter Sweatman, head of the Transportation Research Institute notes:
If you’re out on the public roadways, certainly all kinds of really unusual things will arise, but they’re only going to arise once. We like the idea of creating challenging situations that we can reproduce as many times as we want.
I found watching the video troubling. There are all kinds of engineering considerations, different roads, curves, tunnels, basically testing the engineers idea of a car against the engineer's idea of a city. It seems they are not competing with Silicon Valley here but with Hollywood. And I think Spielberg did a better job.
It also seems a bit of a lost opportunity to me. Not far away there is an entire city with real building facades with nothing behind them, empty roads and intersections and infrastructure waiting to be used. They could have invested in the city and re-inhabited 32 acres with robot cars and robot people and perhaps a few Automat restaurants. That would have been random.
UPDATE: On sister site MNN.com Jim Motavalli covers the same story, and brings in another movie analogy, The Truman show. However Jim also points out that they are capable of a lot more complexity and contradiction that I implied. Read Michigan has a fake city to test self-driving cars