Right in Motor City’s backyard, the University of Michigan opened a new road course on Monday where researchers have begun testing self-driving cars.
The $10 million project, Mcity, has the backing of several automakers and technology firms. General Motors (NYSE:GM), Ford Motor Co. (NYSE:F), Toyota (NYSE:TM), Honda (NYSE:HMC) and Nissan partnered with U-M, alongside chip maker Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM) and telecom giant Verizon Communications (NYSE:VZ).
A total of 15 companies pledged to invest $1 million each over three years. Any organization can utilize the facility, although officials said Mcity partners and U-M faculty and students will be given priority access.
New faces in the automotive world, most notably Google (NASDAQ:GOOGL), are developing technology that would allow vehicles to virtually drive themselves. Others like Tesla Motors (NASDAQ:TSLA) and GM’s Cadillac are close to introducing technology that automates highway driving.
Edmunds.com senior analyst Jessica Caldwell explained that car manufacturers, unlike Google, are using a step-by-step approach to facilitate adoption.
“For consumers, automakers created lane sensors, then cars that park for you. These are different things that get you to autonomous driving,” Caldwell said.
Google has tested its self-driving cars in California and Texas. Meanwhile, Michigan is home to 375 automotive research centers, U-M noted, and the university’s test facility is a clear sign that top automakers are looking to accelerate their research.
Automakers may have home-field advantage over Silicon Valley when it comes to autonomous driving. Caldwell said automakers know better than anyone that different topography leads to different results, and the data collected from tests at Mcity and elsewhere will help improve software that powers self-driving vehicles.
“They know these types of things because this is their business,” Caldwell added.
U-M’s miniature town stretches across 32 acres with four miles of roads that were designed to replicate the real world.
Autonomous vehicles have to navigate construction obstacles and various surfaces, such as cobblestone and dirt. Other details like faded lane markings and road signs covered by graffiti will help research simulate environments where autonomous cars face the most challenges, U-M explained.
The university’s goal is to get autonomous vehicles on public roads in Ann Arbor by 2021.
“There are many challenges ahead as automated vehicles are increasingly deployed on real roadways,” said Peter Sweatman, director of the U-M Mobility Transformation Center.
“Mcity is a safe, controlled, and realistic environment where we are going to figure out how the incredible potential of connected and automated vehicles can be realized quickly, efficiently and safely.”
The Mobility Transformation Center already oversees a project that operates 3,000 cars in the area to test vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication, a wireless technology that allows cars to share information like location and speed.
The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration is pursuing a proposal that would require manufacturers to install V2V technology in all new vehicles.
U-M researchers plan to bring a total of 20,000 V2V test cars to Southern Michigan. Eventually, they expect to deploy a “2,000-vehicle mobility service of connected and automated vehicles in Ann Arbor,” according to U-M.