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The future of mobility

By Alex Piazza

Picture yourself in a car as you approach a traffic signal.

The light turns green before you pump the brakes, so you tap the gas pedal and continue north.

But there is one problem: A driver who is headed east can’t see you because a building on the corner blocks his visibility. He also is distracted by his cellphone, causing him to run the red light.


But what if your car had the ability to communicate with the other vehicle so that it “knew” of the imminent danger and could not only warn you, but also automatically activate the brakes? It could save you a trip to the hospital and a hefty bill from your mechanic.

And think of the impact it could have on other motor vehicle crashes, which accounted for nearly 33,000 deaths in 2014, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

On July 20, the University of Michigan publicly unveiled a 32-acre mini-city designed to transform the future of transportation. A transformation that could mean safer commutes to work, limited congestion on the way, less fuel consumption and lower carbon emissions (see breakout box). And it’s all enabled by a combination of communication and automation.

U-M teamed with the Michigan Department of Transportation to create Mcity, a one-of-a-kind test environment that includes a number of unique features designed to replicate realistic roadway, infrastructure and traffic situations. In one area is a limited-access highway, while other sections resemble downtown districts and residential neighborhoods with traffic signals, mechanical pedestrians and simulated buildings.

“We are on the cusp of a transformation of mobility on a scale we haven’t seen since the introduction of the automobile a century ago,” said Peter Sweatman, director of the university’s Mobility Transformation Center (MTC), which operates Mcity. “Mcity will allow us to rigorously test connected and automated vehicles in a safe, controlled and realistic environment as we go about implementing them on actual streets.”

Michigan made

Detroit earned the nickname “Motor City” for a reason.

It is the heart of the American automotive industry, where Chrysler, Ford and General Motors set up shop. And today, Michigan is home to 375 automotive research centers, the highest concentration of automotive research in the world.

Forty miles west of Detroit, researchers in Ann Arbor are building upon the state’s rich automotive reputation by laying the groundwork for the future. U-M’s MTC is a public-private partnership that aims to lead a revolution in mobility by working to develop an economically viable system of connected and automated vehicles by 2021.

“Michigan has a strong core of expertise that nowhere else in the world has,” said John Maddox, assistant director of MTC. “It will continue to play the most important role in making these vehicles a reality.”

“Michigan has a strong core of expertise that nowhere else in the world has. It will continue to play the most important role in making these vehicles a reality.”

Connected vehicles anonymously and securely exchange data—including location, speed and direction—with other vehicles and the surrounding infrastructure via wireless communication devices. This data can warn individual drivers of traffic tie-ups or emerging dangerous situations, such as a car slipping on ice around an upcoming curve or a car that may be likely to run a red light ahead.

Automated vehicles are equipped with new systems of situation awareness and control that increasingly replace elements of human response and behavior. Such vehicles respond automatically to traffic situations by activating certain driving functions, such as acceleration, braking or steering. The highest level of automation allows for cars to be driverless.

Twenty years from now, transportation will look a whole lot different. Boston Consulting Group estimates that self-driving cars may account for a quarter of all global automobile sales by 2035.

But where do researchers test these vehicles? Major highways and busy downtown districts may be risky. They also don’t provide technology developers with control over traffic scenarios, or enable them to be repeated. And today’s high-speed tracks don’t replicate the complex urban environments that typical drivers traverse on a daily basis. Mcity was the answer.

Through the MTC, the university is partnering with companies from a broad range of industries that will play a key role in shaping a viable system of connected and automated vehicles, including automobile manufacturers and suppliers, telecommunications, data management, traffic management systems, IT and insurance.

At the same time, MTC is bringing together researchers from across campus.

“There are many interrelated technical, legal, social, economic, regulatory and urban planning challenges ahead,” Sweatman said. “Working with a diverse group of partners in industry and departments across our campus, each of which brings its own expertise and perspectives to the table, is critical to our success. The challenges go well beyond the technology to societal and economic ramifications.”


Mcity sits on a 32-acre parcel on U-M’s North Campus.

Not exactly a typical urban environment. But a series of unique features developed by U-M researchers will give the outdoor laboratory a realistic feel in a controlled environment.

  • Sidewalks, pedestrian crossings, bike lanes, railroad crossings, wheelchair ramps and bus stops will give streets the look and feel of urban and suburban environments.
  • Access ramps, highway signage and guardrails will be incorporated in a freeway section.
  • Asphalt, concrete, brick paver and gravel will offer researchers a variety of surfaces to test automated and connected vehicles.
  • Traffic signals, stop signs, traffic circles and roundabouts will provide the range of intersections drivers encounter.
  • Moveable building facades up to two stories high will allow researchers to test how vehicle sensors and communications react to various materials and geometries.
  • Trees and tunnels could impact the performance of automated and connected vehicles, so Mcity will feature a simulated tree canopy and an underpass to determine how environmental obstructions block wireless and satellite signals.
  • A metal bridge surface will allow researchers to test the special challenges for radar and image-processing sensors posed by this surface.
  • Instrumentation will be embedded throughout the test environment, including a control network to collect data about traffic activity using wireless, fiber optics, Ethernet and a highly accurate real-time kinematic positioning system.

Another distinct feature of Mcity will be the presence of robotic pedestrians, which can be programmed to walk into oncoming traffic to test whether sensors can react quickly enough to automatically stop the vehicle before impact.

And because snow and ice often cause hazardous driving conditions in Ann Arbor during the winter months, researchers will be able to test how automated and connected vehicles react to harsh weather.

There are even plans for potholes.