23-acre city for autonomous cars and “mechatronic pedestrians”

A new University of Michigan facility is ready to test autonomous cars in urban settings:

Welcome to M City, a soon-to-open 23-acre mini-metropolis at the University of Michigan, where automakers can test autonomous cars to prepare for the driverless future expected within a decade. Seeking to replicate a modern city’s chaos—traffic jams, unpredictable pedestrians, weaving cyclists—M City starts running on July 20 and has carmakers and tech companies queuing up to conduct research on its roads…

M City sits amid towering pines in the Detroit suburb of Ann Arbor, a short hop from the technology labs of multiple carmakers. Once completed this summer, the $6.5 million facility will be outfitted with 40 building facades, angled intersections, a traffic circle, a bridge, a tunnel, gravel roads, and plenty of obstructed views. There’s even a four-lane highway with entrance and exit ramps to test how cars without a driver would merge.

“Mechatronic pedestrians” who occasionally pop out into traffic will provide a critical—and bloodless—measure of whether sensors and automatic brakes can react in time to avoid running down a real person. As in a Hollywood backlot, building facades can be rearranged to add to the chaos confronting the chip-controlled vehicles…

Eventually, hundreds of robot cars will ply M City’s urban byways in all seasons and weather conditions. “We would never do any dangerous or risky tests on the open road, so this will be a good place to test some of the next technology,” says Hideki Hada, general manager for electronic systems at Toyota’s Technical Center in Ann Arbor. “A big challenge is intersections in the city, because there are vehicles, pedestrians, and bicycles together with complex backgrounds with buildings and connections to infrastructure. That’s why this is really important.”

I wonder if the results will get released. Just how random will those “mechatronic pedestrians” act in order to replicate the unpredictable nature of human beings? Will the landscape eventually involve real humans (given the use of undergraduate students in psychology experiments, there is a large potential pool of participants nearby)? How real will the fake city look, particularly if this becomes an area for photo opportunities?

For some reason, it sounds like the sort of facility that could easily become the setting for a horror/sci-fi film where automated cars and people come to life and wreak havoc on the urban landscape…

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