University of Michigan gives go ahead for $6.5M autonomous car test track

Autonomous cars might be the next big leap in not only making driving easier but also in automotive safety. But where do you test them? Not many cities want to allow several tons of metal piloted by computers to roam their streets, but the University of Michigan has found a solution. Its Board of Regents recently gave construction approval to a $6.5-million test track. The track will allow autonomous vehicles to be tested in real world conditions and includes merging lanes, roundabouts, gravel roads, traffic lights and a stretch of four-lane highway.

"It is very likely the first of its kind. It will allow vehicles to go through a little city," said former U-M Vice President for Research Stephen Forrest to MLive in October, when the project received initial approval.

The test center (rendering above) will be called the Mobility Transformation Facility and is set to include roughly thee lane-miles of roads over 30 acres. There will also be a covered pavilion and a complete framework for lighting, electricity and networking. The track is scheduled to be completed in fall of 2014 and is being built near the university's Transportation Research Institute.

The university hopes to attract government and private research funding to advance the state of autonomous driving tech and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication.
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U-M announces plans for automated vehicle test environment
Oct 18, 2013

The University of Michigan Board of Regents today approved plans to proceed with the design of a unique environment for testing connected and automated vehicles.

The facility, which simulates a dynamic urban environment, is a critical element of a joint project with industry and government to develop and implement an entire system of connected and automated vehicles on the streets of Southeastern Michigan by 2021.

"There have been a host of innovations in this arena in recent years, but one of the major challenges ahead is to ensure that these vehicles can perform safely and reliably in a complex urban setting," said Peter Sweatman, director of the U-M Mobility Transformation Center, which is leading the initiative. "Testing a workable system of such technologies in a realistic off-road environment is an essential step before a significant number of vehicles can be safely implemented on actual roadways."

Occupying 30 acres at the U-M's North Campus Research Complex, the novel test environment will include approximately three lane-miles of roads with intersections, traffic signs and signals, sidewalks, benches, simulated buildings, street lights and obstacles such as construction barriers. Current plans call for the facility to be completed by fall 2014 at a cost of about $6.5 million.

"Connected and automated vehicles provide a new platform for safety improvements, better traffic movement, emissions reduction, energy conservation and maximized transportation accessibility," Sweatman said. "The new facility will help the MTC accelerate and integrate innovations that will lead to a commercially viable automated mobility system that will fundamentally transform mobility in our society."

According to Stephen Forrest, U-M vice president for research, the scope of the challenge goes far beyond technology.

"Developing and implementing a realistic approach to moving both people and freight requires that we integrate scientific, technical, economic, social and policy considerations," he said. "The MTC will convene the required expertise from across campus as well as from industry and government to pave the way for the future."

Forrest says the initiative holds great promise for innovation and change.

"The most exciting prospect is the enormous economic and technological opportunity MTC offers to our region and the U.S. by literally reinventing the automobile more than a century after its first introduction on our nation's roadways," he said.

Launched last spring, the MTC builds on U-M's broad base of expertise and experience working with government and industry on transportation research over the years. With $25 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation, U-M recently implemented the world's largest on-road vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure model deployment in Ann Arbor, with more than 3,000 users. This project, which includes several industry participants,is providing data to inform future policy decisions by the USDOT.

Other activities under way in the region are also laying the foundation for the new mobility system. For example, the Michigan Department of Transportation is installing unique "smart" infrastructure across Southeastern Michigan. And the region's industrial powerhouse of automotive R&D is deeply engaged in automating vehicles for use by consumers and businesses.

Funding for the new research facility will be provided by U-M's Office of Research, College of Engineering, Transportation Research Institute, Energy Institute and Office of the Provost, in partnership with the MDOT.

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