How do you test-drive a car that does not need a driver? In a city with no people, of course! A group from the University of Michigan has built a city, called MCity, especially for testing the autonomous cars, and it is one of the best test cities in the world.
Self-driving cars may one day be taking us to school and work, but first we have to make sure they are safe. The cars will have to be able to avoid people, follow traffic signs, and even be able to park! And while Google has been testing their car on roads in California, the Google car has traveled on those roads before, and there is even a human driver in the car in case something goes wrong.
MCity would give the cars a better area to test their skills. The ‘city’ is on the campus of the school, and it includes all the things you would find in a real city, like railroad crossings, parking spaces, intersections, and different kinds of roads. Ryan Eustice, a professor at the University of Michigan, says the fake city gives the researchers a chance to be “maximally evil” to cars. Since they can arrange the city however they like, the team can put the cars into situations that test it to the max.
MCity also has some especially difficult challenges, at least if you are a self-driving car. The city’s test roads include a tunnel and a metal bridge. Usually, self-driving cars do not do well in tunnels and bridges, because they block the signals the car needs to navigate (get around).
The city also has some things that would not bother a human driver, but are very hard for self-driving cars to figure out—like a grate in a road. “It’s the kind of thing you would drive on in a car and not even think twice about it, but if you’re an automated vehicle, something like that looks very scary,” says engineer Dillon Funkhouser. Hopefully, MCity will help teach the cars the skills they need to start driving our roads for real.