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Jun 06, 2014 07:43 AM EDT

University of Michigan to Create Simulated City to Test Future Robotic Cars

University of Michigan to Create Simulated City to Test Future Robotic Cars.
(Photo : Flickr) University of Michigan to Create Simulated City to Test Future Robotic Cars.

University of Michigan will inaugurate a testing ground for automated vehicles on its North Campus this fall.

The "Mobility Transformation Facility," spread across 32-acres of land, will be a simulated city center that closely imitates the erratic environment of road navigation.

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It features streets, highways (including a four-lane highway), building cut-outs and common obstacles found on roads to determine the response of networked vehicles to dangerous and unpredictable traffic events and varied road conditions.

Researchers said that the facility aims to ensure that these sophisticated vehicles can manoeuvre safely in the real world.

"The College of Engineering brings expertise in robotics and how to test sophisticated machines," Peter Sweatman, director of both the Mobility Transformation Center and the U-M Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI), said in a statement.

The facility under construction also contains programmable street lights, simulated construction and mechanical pedestrians that will surprise the driverless vehicles as they pass through. The short four-lane highway will assess the ability of the cars to navigate in and out of high-speed traffic.

Merge lanes, stoplights, intersections, roundabouts, road signs and railroad crossings among others are also included as part of the testing purpose at the facility.

The facility will be initially used to test automated (but not fully driverless) Ford Fusion hybrid. Other companies and departments will follow suit.

"We will actually be writing code for the test facility," said Edwin Olson, an assistant professor of computer science and engineering. "We'll be able to trigger tricky traffic signal timings, or a pedestrian stepping into the intersection at just the wrong time, for example."

Testing driverless vehicles in real cities and highways is forbidden in most cases. Only some states provide special licenses for automated cars for testing purposes.

 "The type of testing we're talking about doing - it's not possible to do today in the university infrastructure," said Ryan Eustice, an associate professor of naval architecture and marine engineering. "Every time a vehicle comes around the loop, it can hit something unusual. That will give us a leg up on getting these vehicles mature and robust and safe." Facilities like this are also very rare in the auto industry.

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