In Michigan, A Testing Ground For A Future Of Driverless Cars : All Tech Considered Automakers and researchers are using a 32-acre fake city at the University of Michigan to simulate a real-world environment for autonomous vehicles. How will such cars affect urban planning?

In Michigan, A Testing Ground For A Future Of Driverless Cars

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Driverless cars are getting a lot of attention. The technology is rapidly advancing, but it still could take years, perhaps decades, before fully automated cars can drive us around. At the University of Michigan, researchers have built a fake city to help gauge how far off that future might be. NPR's Jason Margolis has more.

JASON MARGOLIS, BYLINE: When engineers at Ford want to see how a new car handles, they take it to a large track with loops and straightaways. That traditional testing ground isn't much help to Randy Visintainer. He directs Ford's autonomous vehicles program.

RANDY VISINTAINER: For an autonomous vehicle, what you really want to have is more of, like, an urban environment - buildings, blind intersections, simulation of pedestrians coming out in front of you and things like that.

MARGOLIS: He's now got access to that at MCity, a 32 acre testing ground at the University of Michigan. Fifteen companies, Ford, General Motors and Nissan among them, each paid a million dollars to help build MCity, where they can now do research alongside university engineers and scientists. Out in California, Google is experimenting with its self-driving car. But it only goes 25 miles per hour and in areas the car's computer has studied before. And there's a driver on board just in case. In Michigan, they want to see how a fully autonomous car would perform in an unpredictable world.

DILLON FUNKHOUSER: Hello, everybody. My name is Dillon Funkhouser. I'm an engineer here at the University Michigan Transportation Research Institute, that building up at the top of the hill. Welcome to MCity.

MARGOLIS: Hundreds of people are coming up for tours of the fake city, complete with a mockup of streets in downtown Ann Arbor, highway onramps, even a simulated forest canopy to block GPS signals - and other curveballs, like a stop sign tagged with graffiti and a small, grated bridge.

FUNKHOUSER: The kind of thing you would drive on a car and not even think twice about it. But if you're an automated vehicle, something like that looks very scary.

MARGOLIS: Autonomous cars sense the world around them with GPS, radar and a laser technology called Lidar. University research scientist Jim Sayer explains.

JIM SAYER: Lidar uses light that reflects off of objects. And the rate at which that light returns can basically create a three-dimensional image of the world around it.

MARGOLIS: The university's urban planners are also studying the policy implications of a driverless future. Jonathan Levine says one possibility is a driverless car in every garage.

JONATHAN LEVINE: Instead of me driving my car, my car drives me.

MARGOLIS: That could dramatically improve road safety and allow for increased mobility in an aging society, with some red flags.

LEVINE: I might say, you know what? I'm headed to an area of constrained parking. Rather than search for a parking spot, I set my car to circulate.

MARGOLIS: In short, a driverless world could become a traffic nightmare. On the other hand, Levine says if self-driving cars operate like taxis or buses that don't require set routes, congestion could ease. But with that scenario, we'd have to give up some convenience and autonomy. Levine says the new MCity creates a reasonably complex environment. But it just can't test autonomous cars in all facets of urban life. After all, MCity has no people - or rather, it has one resident, says Jim Sayer, a 5-foot-8 mechanized robot pedestrian name Sebastian.

SAYER: He does a scissor walk. So he doesn't bend at the knees, but he does have articulating arms that swing with his gate.

MARGOLIS: Within perhaps six years, university researchers hope to have 20 to 30 fully automated vehicles in the real Ann Arbor for the next phase of testing. Jason Margolis, NPR News, Ann Arbor.

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