Ford tests self-driving cars in purpose-built towns

Presumably like a scene from "Cars". Only the cars don't have teeth.

Self-driving cars will someday have to share busy streets with unpredictable people and other vehicles. For most forms of tech, the road from prototype to finished product involves private testing in laboratories before eventually being tried in the real world. Self-driving cars are no different. Early prototypes could drive around inside hangars, but it’s unsafe to release test models into populated areas. So how do you safely test and improve tech that needs to interact with real streets and other road users in order to improve?

The University of Michigan has solved this problem by building a town just for testing. Mcity is a 32-acre purpose-built town at the University’s North Campus Research Complex. It has roads, pavements, curbs, road signs, traffic lights, zebra crossings, roundabouts, tunnels, bike lanes, fire hydrants, construction barriers, different surface materials, and multiple lanes, basically everything a self-driving car will face in the real world except hoverboards. In a collaborative project with the University, Ford is using Mcity to test their self-driving Fusion Hybrid Autonomous Research Vehicle, which unfortunately isn’t any snappier as an acronym. These cars build a 3D model of their environment using cameras, radar, and lasers. No tech of the future is complete without lasers.

Efficient testing

The controlled nature of the town allows more efficient testing. Many of the dangerous events these cars need to recognise and navigate can be relatively rare for a single road user. All over the world, at any given time, there are children running in front of moving vehicles, but send out a self-driving car onto real streets and it might not experience that situation. The cars would have to be used on real roads for many years in order to experience all the problems that could potentially occur.

In Mcity, any of these incidents can take place in a controlled manner and with high frequency. In a single day these vehicles can be put through stresses that might take months of testing in populated areas. According to Professor Ryan Eustice, the principal investigator in this collaborative project, “every mile driven there can represent ten, 100 or 1,000 miles of on-road driving in terms of our ability to pack in the occurrences of difficult events.”

It’s looking a lot like self-driving cars will dominate our streets one day. Sure, there are some people who fear the idea of filling streets with automated vehicles – but I, for one, welcome our new robotic Uber drivers.

Image © Rinspeed

Main image © University of Michigan