In this fake city, cars learn to talk to each other

As part of Road Trip 2015, CNET visits Mcity, a 32-acre fake city in Michigan designed to test self-driving cars’ navigation and communication abilities — and to keep research from migrating to Silicon Valley.

A total of 122,000 miles of roads link Michigan’s fertile central farmlands to its northern wilderness and its southeastern industrial core. But this month, 4.2 miles of new pavement will link that road system to the future, too.

Those streets are part of Mcity, a 32-acre test facility at the University of Michigan that’s funded in part by automotive and tech companies. There, researchers from academia, government and private industry will explore two profoundly transformative automotive technologies: cars that drive themselves and cars that communicate wirelessly with each other.

The changes coming to cars will make recent decades’ worth of automotive developments look like minor tweaks. Sure, electronic fuel injection improved fuel economy, airbags made cars safer and cupholders are convenient for coffee. But with computers in charge, we’ll be able to take a nap on the way to work, avoid accidents before we can see them and send the car to pick up grandma. Cars will know when others are coming around blind corners and link themselves into impromptu energy-efficient highway trains.

At least, they will if the industry can develop technology that’s smart and reliable enough.

The Mcity site packs a lot of driving variety into 32 acres on the University of Michigan campus.

Mcity plays a role in this future. It lets sponsoring carmakers Ford, Nissan, Honda, General Motors and Toyota cooperate with each other and with technology companies like Verizon and Qualcomm to test self-driving vehicles in an urban environment. Mcity, which officially opened earlier this month, is designed to challenge self-driving car systems with everything from simulated pedestrians to stop signs that are faded to pink and covered with graffiti. Other difficulties include a roundabout (emblazoned with the university’s blocky M logo), train tracks, traffic signals and a road section made of the same type of see-through metal grille that gives drivers the willies when crossing Michigan’s Mackinac Bridge high above the link between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron.

Mcity will also influence national debates such as whether car communications should share radio airwaves with smartphones and other devices or have separate, protected airwaves. And where Google and other Silicon Valley companies stole a march on the auto industry in the early days of computerized cars, Mcity could help Detroit steal some of that initiative back, according to Peter Sweatman, director of the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute and the Mcity project.

“The future of mobility — particularly as it’s influenced by connected and automated technologies — is playing out here,” Sweatman said in an interview here in his offices at the university. “The facilities and capabilities we’re providing are helping the industry in this part of the world move forward quickly. A little bit of healthy competition is a good thing.”

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