U-M to build 'simulated urban environment' to test connected cars

DETROIT -- The University of Michigan’s Mobility Transformation Center, along with key partners from a variety of industries, will begin construction of a $6.4 million “simulated urban environment” for testing of connected and automated vehicles, the university said Tuesday.

The off-road, 5-mile test site, to be located on 32 acres of U-M’s North Campus Research Complex in Ann Arbor, Mich., is being designed and built in cooperation with the Michigan Department of Transportation. It will include a network of about three lane miles of concrete and asphalt roads with intersections, traffic signs and signals, sidewalks, roundabouts, benches and simulated buildings, said Francine Romine, a spokeswoman for the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute.

“It won’t look like a test facility,” Romine said. “Instead, it will look more like a movie set complete with fake buildings, intersections, streetlights and other obstacles like construction barriers specially tested for automated technology,” she said.

A ribbon-cutting ceremony for the test site will take place in mid-September in conjunction with ITS World Congress, Romine said.

Industry partners of the privately funded project will each donate $1 million over the course of three years to support the MTC and its programs.

Peter Sweatman, director of the MTC and the U-M Transportation Research Institute, said in a statement that the “potential of this technology is truly transformative, opening up broad opportunities in the emerging marketplace.”

U-M said Ford, General Motors and Toyota are among the industry partners, as well as Bosch, Econolite and Xerox.

“Partnering with these and a select group of other visionary companies from a range of sectors that will play a role in shaping the future -- as well as with government at all levels -- is critical if we are to realize that promise,” Sweatman said.

Systems of connected and automated vehicles could dramatically reduce crashes; relieve urban congestion; and cut pollution and energy use, Romine said.

The project represents the second phase of the Transportation Department’s connected-vehicle safety program. Last year, as part of a study conducted by the Transportation Research Institute, the department fitted 2,800 cars, trucks, buses and motorcycles with wireless devices that track other vehicles' speed and location and alert drivers to congestion.

The goal of MTC is to lay the foundations of a commercially viable system of connected and automated vehicles -- vehicles that communicate wirelessly with one another and with infrastructure to warn of potential hazards and allow increasing automation of vehicle functions, the news release said.

Within the next two years, U-M plans to have 9,000 intelligent vehicles operating in Ann Arbor. By 2021, plans call for demonstrating a working system, adding up to 20,000 vehicles across highways in southeastern Michigan.

Reuters contributed to this report.

You can reach Andrew Thurlow at athurlow@crain.com

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