How a Fake Town Will Change the Future of Driverless Cars

Driverless cars need to be accident-free—this Michigan "town" is teaching them how.

fake town for driverless cars

With headlines like Malfunction! Driverless robot cars are crashing into people in California the public experienced a brief panic at the imagined havoc self-driving cars could bring to our nation’s roads. That fear was quickly dispelled as more details were revealed, namely: All 12 car accidents involving self-driving vehicles were caused by other drivers. As Gizmodo reports, and Google confirms via video, humans just can’t stop crashing into Google’s driverless cars.

A Simulated Solution

Luckily, a solution has been unveiled. Mcity is a 32-acre simulation of public streets created for driverless and connected cars to be tested in a controlled environment. The site, located in Ann Arbor, Michigan, features a network of roadways and building facades that can be arranged to replicate various driving conditions, and which include everything from railroad crossings to a simulated highway on-ramp.

A mini-metropolis for self-driving cars.

This 10-million dollar project is the first to come from the University of Michigan Mobility Transformation Center, which is a private-public partnership between the university, the government and multiple auto companies, including two of the Big Three: Ford and General Motors. Within the boundaries of the simulated environment, researchers will be able to test how cars interact with their surroundings and with each other. The invariable result? A serious acceleration in the improvement of driverless and connected technology.

How The “City” is Different

Where Mcity really excels is in the creation of distinctly challenging environments that driverless cars may not be as likely to encounter on real-world streets. Elements like a metal bridge and a tunnel offer unique opportunities to study the capabilities of a car’s wireless signal or onboard radar, while road signs obscured by graffiti and faded lane markings test how driverless cars react to less-than-ideal conditions. As Business Insider reports, “Every kilometer of testing at the site is worth hundreds of kilometers of real-world driving.”

Complete with streetlights, sidewalks, traffic signals, road obstructions, gravel roads, and even parked cars, all that’s missing from Mcity’s streets are people. And that’s something researchers are thankful for.