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Michigan’s ‘M-City’

The University of Michigan has created a city for self driving cars

14Aug

In June we looked at the self-driving car industry and how it’s been developing. Since then, the world’s first controlled environment specifically for self driving cars has opened its doors. The initiative - which was set up by the University of Michigan - cost $10 million to create and was designed by a number of researchers, government agencies and car manufacturers. The ‘city’ can be adapted depending on the research being carried out, with the hope that the findings will give those tasked with manufacturing self-driving cars the information they need to make them safer.

The project is more than just a pet-project for the university. Ford - which will reportedly add driver-assist technology to all its cars over the next five years - invested millions in the project, with Nissan, Toyota and Honda all following suit.

The excitement around the M-City was in part down to the realization that environmental eccentricities pose the biggest threat for self-driving cars. The sophistication of the current technology is such that the cars can navigate around roads, but a single disturbance, such as a car crashed in the road, confuses the software. More often than not, this results in the journey being stopped, or worse, a crash.

M-City’s primary aim is to create an environment which is as identical to reality as possible. On first look, you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference between it and a normal suburban American town. The MIT Technology review states that the site includes; ‘traffic circles, tunnels, construction sites, highway on- and off-ramps, even faded lane markings and traffic signs defaced with graffiti.’

The main street consists of convenience stores and restaurants - albeit ones painted on a wall - giving the development a real air of authenticity. Its launch was also well attended, with a number of prominent technology providers showcasing their products and how they could affect the industry.

Xereox and Honda, for example, exhibited their smartphone technology which would allow self-driving cars to communicate with pedestrians and cyclists to reduce collisions. Perhaps the most interesting development, however, was demonstrated by Denso - a Japanese supplier of advanced automotive technology - which allows cars to communicate with one another via sensors built in the car.

Denso’s product — which was discussed in the MIT review- is being treated as a breakthrough for self-driving cars, as it will give oncoming cars, which could be in danger of being caught in a collision, a clear indication of the wheel position and speed of the car that’s coming their way. These sensors are already present in a number of cars, but their scope is normally limited to parking sensors, where stationary cars can be detected.

While the M-City is still relatively young, the fact that so many new technological developments have been tested on it shows that it has value. Self-driving cars need a space where they can continuously be developed and the M-City could prove to be the ideal environment. 

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