Fake City for Driverless Cars Could Change Entire Construction Industry

Conventional construction techniques are employed in a very unconventional project.

📅   Fri April 24, 2015 - National Edition
Lori Tobias - CEG CORRESPONDENT


M City’s roads are already in place — and work is beginning on the fake buildings and other areas before it opens in June.
M City’s roads are already in place — and work is beginning on the fake buildings and other areas before it opens in June.
M City’s roads are already in place — and work is beginning on the fake buildings and other areas before it opens in June. M City starts running on July 20, and the $6.5 million facility will be outfitted with 40 building facades, angled intersections, a traffic circle, a bridge, a tunnel, gravel roads, and plenty of obstructed views. “Mechatronic pedestrians” who occasionally pop out into traffic will test whether sensors and automatic brakes can react in time to avoid running down a real person. M City even features a roundabout to better replicate driving in Europe. “Mechatronic pedestrians” who occasionally pop out into traffic will test whether sensors and automatic brakes can react in time to avoid running down a real person.

For several months, backhoe, dump truck, grader and other heavy equipment operators worked to transform 32 acres at the University of Michigan into what will eventually look like a typical little city. Nothing unusual about that.

“This called for extremely conventional techniques,” said David R. Lampe, executive director, strategic communications, University of Michigan Office of Research. “Asphalt roads were constructed the way asphalt roads are constructed. We landscaped so it would have the appropriate amount of straightaways and hills. What’s unusual is not its construction, but what it is being used for.”

And that’s something that one day may impact everything we know about urban living, including the way we operate construction equipment. The mini-city at the Ann Arbor campus, dubbed M City, is being designed to test connected and automated vehicle systems — that is, driverless cars that can “communicate” with each other and via the city infrastructure.

“Certainly this will change the urban environment and urban planning,” Lampe said. “How you think of laying out a city. I think maybe the tools that make it may be in for the same changes. It can change the way a city works. There’s a whole trend toward better sensing and better automation, and it could well affect the construction industry.”

More than 41 companies from around the world, including Hitachi, have signed on with the University to develop the program. The goal is by 2021 to have a working system of connected and automated vehicles that is commercially viable.

Sounds futuristic? It is.

“It won’t look futuristic, but the transportation is super futuristic,” Lampe said. “First, we build this city. It has everything, park benches, four lanes, two lanes, single lanes, 13 intersections, fire hydrants, store fronts, traffic lights, bus facilities, streetlights, parked cars and pedestrians. You can do things like change the traffic signals, have pedestrians step out in front of cars. It’s controlled systems without the danger. Autonomous vehicles carry all the sensing and decision making equipment on the car itself. In M City, you will be able to leave the driver out and test it because that way it is safe. The car can only respond to what it sees. If it is snowing, it can’t see. If there is a building between you and another car, it can’t see it. With the connected system, if there is something you need to know, your car will know by speaking to each other through infrastructure.”

Outside of M City, there are currently about 3,000 cars on the road communicating with each other in Ann Arbor. None, of course, are automated.

“We’re going to expand to 20,000 cars all across southeast Michigan,” Lampe said. “It does allow you to test warning the systems. It can warn the driver that there is ice two miles down the road. Warn the driver that someone is passing too closely. Some of these things are being implemented in cars. The connectedness allows you to see beyond what you can see yourself.”

M City costs about $6.5 million to build. When the project is complete, it is expected to cost about $100 million. There’s little doubt that the new system of transportation is coming, Lampe said. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has recently ruled that it will come up with regulations governing how such a system would work.

But there are many challenges to be overcome first.

“Our goal is to figure out how to accelerate progress,” Lampe said. “The barriers to success include cyber security, massive data management challenges, the whole business of liability, regulations. There is the whole business of social acceptance. We’re working on all aspects.

“If you do this right, you can reduce traffic accidents by as much as 80 percent, fuel consumption by as much as 80 percent and pollution by as much as 80 percent. It changes the whole notion of car ownership.”