A GRIDSMART team visits Ann Arbor, Michigan, for an opportunity to tour the University of Michigan’s Mcity Test Facility as the GRIDSMART System is installed.

The Mcity Test Facility sits on a 30-acre site on U-M’s North Campus and has more than 16 acres of roads and traffic infrastructure, complete with red light intersections, a roundabout, and even a strip of highway.  It is the world’s first facility purpose-built for testing connected and automated vehicles and technologies in a safe, controlled environment.  The facility opened in July 2015.

We meet with Mcity Lab Director Greg McGuire, and Mcity Data Architect Tyler Worman to learn more about the facility and the future of connectivity.

Mcity’s Q&A Mcity Lab Director Greg McGuire and Data Architect Tyler Worman

JOHNSON: Let’s start with a little history of Mcity.

MCGUIRE: Mcity is a public-private partnership between mobility industry companies, the University of Michigan’s research community and the government—local level, state level, and federal level.

We bring all those groups together to research advanced mobility topics like connected vehicles, automation, sharing, electrification.

The 60 or so companies that make up Mcity’s membership invest money that we pool together and use to fund research at the university and elsewhere. That’s our primary mission.

The lab we’re standing in right now is the Mcity Test Facility. It’s a private facility for when you need to test advanced vehicles in real-world conditions, but you also need control over the environment, or for safety, or to just test repeatability, when you need to be in a place where there aren’t humans.


JOHNSON: What sets this facility apart from others?

WORMAN: We’re mostly focused on pre-competitive research. We were, I believe, the first purpose-built connected and automated vehicle testing facility in the world. We try to build our membership by finding companies whose work is complementary to our research or who are open to collaborating with others. Anyone can rent the test facility, though, even without being a member of Mcity or part of the university.


JOHNSON: What kind of research?

MCGUIRE: I’d say mostly connected vehicle research, autonomous vehicle research, we’ll fund studies within the university, say like sensor studies. There are a number of published papers about the work that’s been done here. Augmented reality testing has been done here. When you’re actually driving a car in the facility here, we can broadcast information in the facility as if it were coming from other traffic, and there are some public videos of that. So the car you’re testing, you can simulate things like red-light running, and you don’t have to risk your car or another vehicle. Your vehicle thinks that a car just ran a red-light in front of it, and you can see that on the screen inside your vehicle. It’s all run by a simulator, but your real vehicle can be out here testing and responding to it.


JOHNSON: That’s impressive!

MCGUIRE: Yeah, it’s really cool. They simulated a train coming through, so you can actually see a train coming through the facility and that’s all done with the augmented reality and connected vehicle technology.


JOHNSON: Has Google contacted you yet?

MCGUIRE: Haha, well Waymo has one, just like this. They built it for themselves.


JOHNSON: I’m surprised they didn’t call you first…

MCGUIRE: Haha, You know, I think ours is obviously better [jokingly], but no—this is a trend. We’re at the front of the trend. This is a trend in the development of more and more complex, and automated, and eventually perhaps autonomous systems. You need a place where you can really prove out your research and prove out your development before you put vehicles in a place where they’re interacting with people.


JOHNSON: So, what have your findings shown so far?

MCGUIRE: So we use this test facility for several purposes. About half of the time it’s used to conduct research. These are the pooled research projects I mentioned that are funded and sponsored by the Mcity member companies. The other half is really to help the industry build these advanced mobility systems and to do so with net benefit to society. We can make this facility available for member companies and really just companies in general who need a real-world test environment.


JOHNSON: Has anything shocked you about using the test facility so far?

MCGUIRE: What’s interesting to me is the innovative ways people think to use the facility. There are lots of different experiments and things that happen out here than just cars driving around on asphalt…We actually tested how humans interact with an automated system and how that might differ from a human-driven system.

JOHNSON: I read about people participating in a research study where they are given multiple scenarios, and participants are asked to vote on ethics for an autonomous vehicle…

MCGUIRE: My simple answer: There is nobody [who] has the moral high ground to say one life is better than another. Will we accept some fatalities on the road to fewer fatalities? No. The real goal needs to be zero fatalities. The important use of this facility currently is developing a test track-based concept for assessing the safety of highly automated vehicles before they head out onto open roads. The concept could emerge as a model for a voluntary standard for safety testing. This is something we’re working on with our industry partners right now. And this is actually where the GRIDSMART technology will play a role.


JOHNSON: Do you think cities are likely to embrace this technology?

WORMAN: I think we’ll see a slow upgrade of existing equipment. Items that are easy to add on or augment existing hardware are going to be easier to justify.


JOHNSON: Do you think it will catch on in smaller cities or do you think it will mainly stay in urban areas?

WORMAN: I think you will see the technology in smaller cities There’s some infrastructure required to do the “connected” portion that we have [at Mcity]. I think you’ll kind of see the connected technology roll out way before you see a general-purpose autonomous vehicle. The connected technology solves some cases, like blind corners, better than the current automated solutions do. As automated vehicle technology progresses, I think you’ll see a hybrid approach where you get some features from both the connected and automated feature sets implemented for small and urban areas.


JOHNSON: In your opinion, how close are we from truly autonomous vehicles on public roadways?

WORMAN: I think it’s a long way off…at least 10 or more years. For a general-purpose, usable vehicle, we’re a long way off.


JOHNSON: What’s the major change we need to make autonomous vehicles catch on?

WORMAN: Right now—testing. Testing in different environments and conditions. The sensors have a way to go. The public perception has a way to go. The software has a way to go. The cost has to drop.

Mcity’s vision is to lead in the transition to a new world of connected and automated vehicles.

They believe the benefits of these vehicles include reducing vehicle fatalities and injuries by as much as 90 percent, increasing vehicle energy efficiency, thus reducing carbon emissions, and expanding accessibility to transportation options to those who don’t have it today. Mcity believes the future of driverless vehicles is on the horizon, and others agree.

As of late 2018, 29 states have already enacted legislation regarding autonomous vehicles. Several U.S. auto manufacturers, like Ford, General Motors, Nissan, Tesla, and Mercedes, have already invested in automated R&D. In December 2018, Google’s self-driving-car company Waymo launched their commercial self-driving car service in Phoenix, AZ.

To learn more about connected and automated vehicles, levels of automation, and the future of driverless vehicles, visit Mcity’s website.

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