November 10, 2015
When it comes to testing traditional, manually driven vehicles, car companies typically take their vehicles to a large track with lots of loops and straightaways. Unfortunately for driverless cars, those tracks are not all that helpful. Instead, the testing of driverless cars requires more of a simulation of an urban environment including pedestrians jumping out in front of the car. Luckily, for companies working on these autonomous vehicles, the University of Michigan has built a 32 acre testing ground that was funded by 15 different motor companies, including Ford and Nissan. These companies will now be able to do research with university engineers and scientists to experiment with driverless cars.
The city itself is aimed at recreating real world conditions for these special cars to encounter. The designers have thought of everything to include, from graffitied signs — which makes it difficult for the sensors to read — and a robot that crosses the road without looking both ways first. It features paved roads, gravel roads, brick roads, roundabouts of various sizes, train and pedestrian crossings, four way stops, parallel parking spots, and even tunnels and trees with a lot of canopy. They have named it Mcity and was designed to resemble downtown Ann Arbor. So far the testing has gone well and there have been no accidents. And although it has been designed with a reasonably complex environment, there is just simply no way to test the driverless cars in all facets of an urban environment.
What does it mean for the future of driverless cars?
This fabricated city is a key lynchpin in the development of autonomous and connected cars. The development of the technology will be able to benefit from the expertise of both university and professional engineers and scientists. This means that there is the potential for a faster advancement of the technology involved with connected and autonomous cars, though it may still take decades before anything is put on the roads. At the test city they are hoping in six years to have 20 to 30 fully automated cars in the real Ann Arbor for the next phase of testing. In the end, self driving cars are very near and on the horizon with the collaboration between private and public institutions.
What technology is being used?
As mentioned above, there are two types of technology being used on the special city; connected and autonomous cars. Connected cars are vehicles that use a GPS and short-range communication antenna placed on the vehicle that gives the driver information about what is going on around them via a display unit that is mounted inside the vehicle. In theory, it provides a lot of safety benefits as the technology has the potential to avert 80% of fatal car crashes.
Autonomous cars are vehicles that can drive themselves safely from point A to point B. Driverless cars use GPS, big data vendors, and a radar and light technology called Lidar. Lidar uses light that reflects off objects and then measures the rate at which the light returns to create a 3D world around itself.
There has been some advancement on that front with the 2017 Cadillac that will have a feature called super cruise, which allows drivers to take their hands off the steering wheel, feet off the pedals, and eyes off the road while driving on the highway. And although Cadillac is introducing this feature in two years, engineers and scientists still have a long way to go before a fully automated car is ready to be tested in real life situations, but with the collaboration between corporate, university, and government transportation professionals, this technology can be developed much more quickly.
While the opening of this test city can advance the technology behind automated and connected cars and has the potential to dramatically improve road safety and increase mobility for an ever aging society, there is one main concern to be aware of. If our cars can drive us around we may be less opposed to spending more time commuting, which means people can live further away from work, and if parking is constrained the car could be set to circulate. Driverless cars could become a traffic nightmare.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
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