Testing Self-Driving Cars in a Robot City

Testing Self-Driving Cars in a Robot City

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During a panel at @GreenBiz #VERGEcon, leaders from @GM, @UMich and @DelphiAuto discussed autonomous vehicles: http://bit.ly/1R4jiPN

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MCity is a 32-acre mini-metropolis in Michigan where automakers and suppliers can test autonomous cars.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015 - 11:35am

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During a panel at the GreenBiz Verge conference in Silicon Valley, leaders from General Motors, supplier Delphi and the University of Michigan demonstrated the collaboration taking place to transform transportation as we know it today. They — along with 60 other partners — are testing self-driving cars in a fake city to get them ready for the real streets of Anytown, USA.

And although this conversation took place in what’s generally considered a hotbed of technology innovation, it’s brilliant minds 30 minutes outside of Detroit at MCity reinventing the way we move.

The implications of automated vehicles will revolutionize personal mobility and its effects will touch many sectors and audiences. Some of the key leaders with a big stake, such as automakers, insurance companies, and city leaders, came together to pool resources to build this campus. The MCity project went from an idea, to poured cement, to driving on a track in just two years.  And it’s that “co-opetition” as John Absmeier, director of Silicon Valley Labs at Delphi, referenced, enabling competitors to drive progress faster.

“This is one area where the auto industry – and it’s a competitive industry – realizes it is better to work together,” said Harry Lightsey, executive director of Global Connected Customer and Public Policy at General Motors. “We anticipate the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration to come out with a rulemaking requiring all automakers to have vehicle-to-vehicle communications equipment installed in their cars, and unifying the standards so that Ford cars can talk to GM cars and GM cars can talk to BMWs.  In order for this system to work, that needs to happen.”

While GM is testing automated and connected vehicle technologies like V2V at its Tech Center and proving ground, the value of MCity lies in bringing the different brands together.

Automating cars brings potential rewards: fewer accidents, better efficiency and increased comfort in commuting.  And although there are some that would immediately embrace it – just think about the unpredictability of rush-hour traffic on your everyday commute – many would be hesitant to give up control. Education and awareness would need to be ramped up.

“The trust of our customers is paramount,” said Lightsey. “With these technologies, and certainly at the early stages of adoption, we know we have to build that. We put the customer at the middle of everything.”

Absmeier said the interface will look different with autonomous cars.

“You need to give people enough situational awareness so that they’re confident that the car is doing what it’s supposed to,” he said. “How we educate people will change.”

But for now, engineers and researchers are exploring the possibilities and testing the limits of this new technology. Financing the implementation of it is another challenge altogether. 

“Interestingly there are some early efforts to look at business models that may be compelling,” said John Maddox, director of collaborative program strategies at the University of Michigan Transportation Institute. “Imagine if you can use this infrastructure to act as super Wi-Fi hotspots. Imagine the combination of public and private investment to do so.”

It’s this level of collaborative thinking that fuels the MCity initiative every day.

“We know all of our partners are looking at these technologies either as a risk or benefit, or both,” said Maddox. “Frankly, the realism is that we all have these key questions that no one knows how to answer, but all of these questions fit together.

“You can’t think about liability until you understand the technology. You can’t finalize the technology unless you understand the liability. The two things have to go hand-in-hand. It’s very much a process and very much still an experiment. We get into interesting questions at a high level and very technical questions at an intricate level. And both of those are required.”

There are numerous benefits to testing in this closed, controlled environment. For example, what happens when a traffic light goes out? What if a policeman is gesturing? What happens if there’s a storm and the traffic light turns to a blinking yellow? Will the vehicle know what to do?

“Those are the types of experiences you encounter in real life, and it’s hard to set them up unless you have a controlled environment like this,” said Absmeier. “And on these closed-course, secured environments, we can do more limit-testing, all-weather testing…things that wouldn’t be prudent on public streets and roads.  That’s the huge opportunity with MCity.”

In closing, Lightsey commented on how companies tend to over-forecast the amount of change that’ll happen in the next two years and under-forecast the change in the next 10 years.

“Ten years ago the iPhone didn’t exist,” he said. “We’re not going to have fully autonomous cars on the road in the next two years. But I think 10 years from now, we’re going to look back and say the world has truly changed.”

Connectivity is enabling that change and creating much opportunity amid the disruption.