This Fake City Promises Real Advances in Transportation - MACH

ANN ARBOR, MICH. — A self-driving car is driving past Liberty Street’s charming storefronts when a truck runs a red light. The car screeches to a halt, avoiding a collision by inches.

Except that the truck isn’t real. And Liberty Street’s shops and restaurants are just a painted façade. Almost nothing here in Mcity is real, and that’s just the way Carrie Morton likes it.

“0.1 percent of extreme car testing should be done using real vehicles,” says Morton, deputy director of the University of Michigan’s Mcity facility. “The rest should be some sort of simulation. Anything else is too dangerous.”


Mcity is a sort of digital ghost town that replicates almost any environment that today’s motorists — and tomorrow’s autonomous vehicles — might experience. Its 32 acres contain highways, ramps, tunnels, and roads made of concrete, asphalt, brick, and dirt. There are crosswalks, bike lanes, curbs, and fire hydrants, all surrounded by fake buildings and populated by eerily lifelike crash test dummy pedestrians.

But the most important part of Mcity is invisible. Though its streets look to be empty of all but Mcity’s test vehicles, they teem with virtual cars, trucks, cyclists, and pedestrians. These can be seen on a computer screen in Mcity’s experimental car: a Lincoln MKZ updated with sensors, transceivers, and computers that make it both autonomous and connected.

“We can create dozens or even hundreds of background vehicles,” says Morton. “Think of it as augmented reality that saves time and money, and reduces risk.”


Carmakers are racing to develop autonomous vehicles to reduce the more than 37,000 road deaths in the U.S. each year — and give motorists the freedom to work, communicate, and even sleep on the move.

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