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Driving the Future

By Alex Piazza

Traffic crashes are one of the leading causes of death in the United States, and the number is rising. In 2015, traffic deaths jumped 7 percent from the previous year, to 35,092, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Driverless vehicle research under way at the University of Michigan may be able to help trim this toll, and also reduce fuel consumption, cut emissions and boost accessibility to transportation in urban areas.

In 2013, U-M established Mcity (formerly the Mobility Transformation Center), a public-private partnership among industry, government and academia, to accelerate the development of connected and automated, including driverless, vehicles. Central to their approach is to “connect” vehicles to each other and to the surrounding infrastructure through wireless communication so they can anonymously and securely exchange data—including location, speed and direction.

This makes it possible to warn drivers of emerging dangerous situations ranging from icy conditions ahead to vehicles approaching at a blind corner. Connectivity can enable automation by acting as another sensor, providing data about nearby vehicles and the surrounding environment to supplement information gathered by other sensors on an automated vehicle, such as LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging), radar and cameras. And it opens up the possibility of managing networks of driverless vehicles connected with each other and the infrastructure across urban landscapes, further improving safety, traffic flow and sustainability.

New advances

Mcity has invested $16 million in 30 research and development projects that have covered fields ranging from public policy and law to urban planning and engineering.

“The biggest unknown challenge is understanding how humans will use this new technology. User acceptance is a critical barrier that we must overcome in order to move forward.”

“A lot of transportation barriers are not technical,” said Mcity Director Huei Peng. “And because technology is developing so quickly, we are focusing a lot of our efforts moving forward on the social sciences. The biggest unknown challenge is understanding how humans will use this new technology. User acceptance is a critical barrier that we must overcome in order to move forward.”

For example, U-M researchers have built a vehicle simulation model to study how human behavior—driver performance, attention and emotional state—is affected at different levels of automation, including the moment when control transfers between driver and vehicle. Early findings suggest drivers trust the technology enough to engage in other activities while behind the wheel of an automated vehicle. 

And researchers established an applied research lab to evaluate cybersecurity solutions for a wide variety of challenges presented by automated vehicles.

Collaborative effort

Mobility is a competitive industry, as every company aims to develop new technology that could secure their position in the marketplace. But they also struggle with many of the same underlying questions:

  • Will consumers embrace driverless vehicles?
  • Are driverless vehicles more vulnerable to cybersecurity threats?
  • How will fault be assessed in the event of a driverless vehicle crash?

Mcity Director Huei Peng meets with industry partners.

For that reason, Mcity has brought together more than 65 companies from a wide range of industries to address many of the challenges facing the future of mobility.

As part of building a collaborative ecosystem, Mcity established six working groups, comprised of U-M researchers and industry partners, to explore such issues as cybersecurity and liability.

“Over the last year, thanks to our engagement with Mcity, we’ve been able to help drive innovations in security, data and user experience to help accelerate the deployment of driverless cars,” said David Formisano, director of strategy at Intel Corporation, a member of Mcity's Leadership Circle of industry partners.

Cybersecurity is of particular concern, as a recent U-M study shows that more than 75 percent of people are at least slightly concerned that self-driving vehicles could be hacked to either cause crashes, disable many vehicles simultaneously or deactivate a vehicles’ primary traffic-management system.

Another cohort of U-M researchers and industry partners are working together to better understand the legal and insurance implications of connected and automated vehicles. Last spring, the U-M Law School organized a conference in which industry, government and academic experts examined the legal and regulatory implications of driverless cars.

Test environment

Driverless cars could account for a quarter of all global automobile sales by 2035, according to estimates from a 2015 study conducted by The Boston Consulting Group.

But where can researchers test these vehicles? Roads and highways that are in use are too risky, and they don’t allow researchers to control traffic scenarios. And today’s high-speed tracks don’t replicate the complex urban environments that drivers experience every day.

U-M has acquired two open connected and automated research
vehicles, one of which is a Lincoln MKZ. Photo: Joseph Xu

In 2015, the university opened the Mcity Test Facility—the world’s first purpose-built test facility for connected and automated vehicles and technologies, which has drawn worldwide attention for its unique capabilities. Built on a 32-acre site on U-M’s North Campus, the Mcity Test Facility features more than 16 acres of roads and traffic infrastructure. It simulates a real world urban and suburban driving environment with intersections, traffic signs and signals, sidewalks, benches, simulated buildings, streetlights and obstacles such as construction barriers.

In 2016, university, industry and government logged more than 2,000 hours at the facility, which provides a realistic, instrumented environment for rigorous, repeatable and safe testing of technologies in a broad spectrum of situations.

“Testing Ford’s autonomous vehicle fleet at Mcity provides another challenging, yet safe, urban environment to repeatedly check and hone these new technologies,” said Raj Nair, Ford executive vice president, Global Product Development and chief technical officer. “This is an important step in making millions of people’s lives better and improving their mobility as we work toward delivering fully capable, autonomous vehicles.”

Automated and connected vehicle technology is constantly changing, so Mcity has added capabilities to its test facility to better serve researchers:

  • U-M has acquired two open connected and automated research vehicles, or Open CAVs —a Lincoln MKZ and a Kia Soul—as well as a 15-passenger, driverless electric shuttle. The university plans to add two more research vehicles to the Mcity fleet for use by faculty and students, startups and industry partners.
  • Four intersections at the Mcity Test Facility were designed so that test vehicles can wirelessly broadcast messages, like location, speed and direction. All 10 Mcity intersections will soon have similar capability.
  • Mcity plans to add augmented reality simulation capability to its test facility so that researchers can emulate the existence of connected cars—making research safer, more repeatable and less costly.

“We are not just a test facility,” Peng said. “We are not just conducting research. We are not just developing a living laboratory of connected and automated vehicle deployments on roadways across southeast Michigan. We do all of the above, and more importantly, all of the projects are done in collaboration with our industry partners.”

References and Resources


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