Testing autonomous cars in a fake city

Eventually, we might all be getting around in cars that drive themselves. But testing these cars on real city streets can be a bit of challenge and dangerous. So how do you work out the kinks without putting pedestrians or other drivers at risk? Build a fake "city."

The University of Michigan hopes to teach vehicles a common language in an environment it calls Mcity.

"It's a test environment for automated and connected vehicles of the future," says Peter Sweatman, the director of Michigan's Mobility Transformation Center. He oversees a one-of-a-kind, fully customizable ecosystem in which to perfect a fully autonomous vehicle to prevent millions of injuries a year, save billions of dollars in fuel, reduce greenhouse gases, automatically avoid construction zones and other delays, and revolutionize both freight and transportation on demand by 202, sending such cars onto the streets of Ann Arbor, then southeastern Michigan, and later the rest of the nation.

"The legal challenges will be many," says AAA New York's Robert Sinclair Jr. "If something goes wrong with the system, is the manufacturer responsible? Is the driver responsible because they were behind the wheel?"

In the last couple of years, Sinclair has noticed a rise in semi-autonomous vehicles: cars that monitor drifting into other lanes, cars that can parallel park themselves, cars requiring the driver do less and less to make them move safely.

"There are a lot of people who are unwilling or unable to drive a car properly on their own and so they need some sort of assistance," Sinclair says.

"Cars are getting a lot smarter, but I think the next step is: What is the stage when we can actually take our hands off the wheel?" says Laptop Magazine Editor-in-Chief Mark Spoonauer, who predicts a technologically near-perfect fully autonomous vehicle in the next 10 years.

The infrastructure overhaul to allow such an invention to work in concert with traffic patterns, traffic lights, and all the other chaos of a New York City street might take much longer.

"The big data that needs to be processed for all this to happen in real time is going to be key," Spoonauer says.

The legislation necessary to make all this legal could delay the driverless car still further.

The public-private partnership between engineers, lawyers, businessmen, doctors, government,  higher education and industry operating Michigan's  Mcity hopes to speed up those timelines by designing a 21 Century mobility system improving safety, energy and efficiency.

"What we're doing at MTC isn't just about technology," Sweatman says. "It's about the benefits and effects of that technology."