Building a Fake City for the Purpose of Testing Self-Driving Cars

You know how many TV shows like Friends or Seinfeld take place in a fake city? If you’ve ever seen one of those behind-the-scenes episodes from TV, then you would know that, although it may look like a real city and a real coffee shop, those places that the main characters hang out in are actually fake.

Hollywood has done some great things with fake sets and now it’s time for self-driving cars to have their own fake city as well.

There’s a fake city built for testing self-driving cars

On July 20th, the University Of Michigan announced that it has opened Mcity which is “the world’s first controlled environment specifically designed to test the potential of connected and automated vehicle technologies”.

Peter Sweatman, the director of the U-M Mobility Transformation Center, believes that connected cars and autonomous vehicles will have a positive impact on road safety, efficiency and overall road mobility. He says that thanks to these new car technologies they’re aiding at developing, they will make the cities and the suburbs better places to live in.

Below, you can see a small preview of Mcity.

Why Michigan?

For more than a century, Michigan has been a global center for automotive research and development. The fact that it has built a fake city which has the purpose of testing self-driving cars reinforces Michigan’s position as a leader in the automotive industry.

To this day, in Michigan there are 375 automotive research centers and it’s also the state where there’s the highest concentration of engineers that work in industry and mechanics.

This is a major step for Michigan towards becoming a world leader in terms of mobility.

What you can find in this fake city

Basically, Mcity is a simulated environment that has all the elements of a regular city which are essential for testing self-driving cars:

  • network of roads;
  • intersections;
  • traffic signs and lights;
  • streetlights;
  • building facades;
  • sidewalks;
  • construction obstacles;
  • robotic pedestrian;
  • bridge;
  • tunnel;
  • four-lane highway.

The fake city stretches out onto 32 acres. The design is made so that it will support a lot of testings of new technology. These tests need to be taken under a number of different scenarios because, afterwards, they are going to be tested out on public streets. So, they can’t make any mistakes.

By having a fake city, the development of this technology is going to happen in a safe and controlled, but realistic environment. Also, all of these tests that are going to take place here will provide a lot of insight on the potential of connected and self-driving cars in the city.

A fake city enables researchers to simulate any conditions

In Mcity, researchers will be able to simulate conditions starting with the most common challenges and ending with the smallest of details. They have it all here, from road signs that have been slightly altered to faded lane markings which are common details drivers face every day.

The robotic pedestrian has got itself even a name: Sebastian. Its purpose is to randomly step out in traffic in order to test out how self-driving cars are going to react in these types of situations. You can see a small glimpse of this in the video posted above.

$10 million have been invested in Mcity. The good news is that any organization can test cars in the fake city, but MTC partners and the University Of Michigan have priority.

What this means for the development of self-driving cars

The idea of building a fake city is actually a really good one. Imagine how hard it would be to test a driverless vehicle in a real world environment, especially when there’s a chance that something might go wrong. They’re not called tests for nothing.

What is interesting here to see is how the car is going to react in real life conditions and whether or not researchers are going to be able to predict every type of situation.

What do you think about this fake city? Do you believe it has potential for the development of driverless cars?

Philipp Kandal