As the auto industry races toward a future in which drivers take a literal backseat, two Michigan test centers have sprung up to ensure autonomous vehicles are safe and efficient.
The newest of these facilities, the American Center for Mobility (ACM), opened in December 2017 on the site of a former World War II bomber factory built by Henry Ford — a fitting pedigree for a project that seeks to build on Michigan’s deep roots in automotive innovation. Located near Ann Arbor, the 500-acre proving grounds boast simulated driving environments ranging from highway loops to overpasses and roundabouts to intersections.
At ACM, car makers such as Toyota and Ford test self-driving prototypes equipped with the latest hands-free tech — things such as voice command and vehicle-to-vehicle communication, the latter of which allows cars to broadcast their speed and direction to other cars, as well as “talk” to traffic lights to reduce congestion. Microsoft’s cloud service collects test data that auto manufacturers, the University of Michigan, the state’s department of transportation and other partners then test.
ACM is part of the larger PlanetM project, a kind of think-tank-meets-networking-platform for Michigan’s mobility technology initiatives. PlanetM also helped facilitate Mcity, which bills itself as “the world’s first purpose-built facility for testing connected and automated vehicles.” The Ann Arbor–based research center sits on 32 acres at the University of Michigan and, like ACM, simulates actual driving environments and conditions (snow, sleet, rain!).
In addition to using the test track, university researchers have deployed 1,500 self-driving cars on the streets of Ann Arbor to help these vehicles perform better in the real world, where early forms of self-driving technology have sometimes failed.
If all goes as planned, these high-tech test vehicles will someday reduce traffic and accidents caused by faulty infrastructure and human error. In the meantime, expect baby-step innovations such as lane-keeping assist, automatic braking and other driver-assistive options. Now if only there were a way to automatically make other drivers better at merging.