The first time many Americans ride in a self-driving car, it probably won't be in a vehicle they own. It will be in one they hail with an app.

Ride-sharing services are angling to become some of the first road users to deploy autonomous technology in real-world settings. Days after the chief executive officer of Uber said he wants to invest in a fleet of a half-million autonomous cars within the next five years, officials at the University of Michigan announced a ride-sharing experiment that could one day reinvent the way students and professors move around a sprawling campus.

Researchers at the school will test a fleet of 3D-printed, low-speed, electric autonomous vehicles on the school's campus for at least the next year. Their goal is not necessarily to test the self-driving technology itself, but to evaluate how it functions in a broader transportation environment. The first of three vehicles to be used in the experiment arrives in Ann Arbor next week.

"The goal ... is for us to begin understanding the challenges of a transportation-on-demand system built around autonomous cars," said Edwin Olson, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science who leads the project.

Officials announced the "SmartCarts" research just as the university prepares to open MCity, a 32-acre simulated city that will be used as testing grounds for autonomous and connected vehicles. The proving grounds feature a network of roads, traffic signals, building facades and other construction obstacles and is operated by the Mobility Transformation Center, a public-private research and development partnership. Among other projects, MCity will have a key role in developing the US Department of Transportation's vehicle-to-vehicle communication protocols. Mcity is scheduled to open July 20.

The cars for the ride-sharing project borrow their powertrains from golf carts, and are being custom-made for the university by Local Motors, an Arizona-based company that showcased what's believed to be the world's first 3D-printed car earlier this year at the Detroit Auto Show. The body is printed out of acrylonitrile butadiene styrene plastic (more commonly known as ABS, which is what Lego bricks are made of) and reinforced with fiber for strength. But the unique manufacturing process affords researchers the flexibility to change parts as their work reveals new needs. For example, if a more innovative dashboard without a steering wheel is desired, Local Motors can print new components "in a matter of hours," university officials say.

Local Motors officials delivered the first of the three cars, pictured above, to university researchers today in Tempe, Arizona. For the first phase of the test, the vehicles will stay within the MCity limits. A second phase could include further testing around the university's campus, a university spokesperson says. There's no timetable for that phase – but it could be an even better way for researchers to analyze how autonomous technology could be used in a disparate environment like a college campus, taking students professors and staff to class, labs and offices.

That includes understanding passengers' expectations, coordinating and optimizing vehicle routes and figuring out supply and demand. "Those factors – not just the self-driving technology – are critical to the economic viability and social acceptance of a full-scale transportation service," Olson said.

Related Video:

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