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University of Michigan opens autonomous-car testing center

The University of Michigan just built a fake city on its Ann Arbor campus. It’s got streets, traffic signs, and buildings that only look real at first glance. It seems like the place to train soldiers in urban combat or to film a movie, but it has a completely different purpose.

Known as Mcity, this is a testing facility for self-driving cars. Built on land formerly owned by pharmaceutical conglomerate Pfizer, the $6.5 million network of asphalt is part of Michigan’s bid to take the lead in an automotive tech race currently dominated by Silicon Valley, according to Autoblog.

Mcity is roughly divided into two areas spread out over 32 acres. One simulates highways for the high-speed testing of self-driving cars, while the other features the fake downtown area and a suburban setting for testing cars in lower-speed driving. During normal operations, two companies can use the facility at a time.

While companies like Google have skipped closed courses in favor of testing on public roads, the University of Michigan believes there is value in a purpose-built environment like Mcity.

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While it includes everything one would see on real-world roads — from stop signs to curbs — Mcity allows researchers to more tightly control testing conditions, and to repeat events and replicate conditions when necessary.

A dedicated testing facility such as this also allows companies to avoid the potential legal hassles of deploying a prototype self-driving car on public roads. Only a handful of states (Michigan is one of them) have explicitly legalized the testing of autonomous cars on their roads, limiting the consequences for carmakers if one gets into a crash.

If nothing else, current cars are developed with a mix of closed-course testing and driving on public roads, and there’s no reason to think autonomous cars should be any different.

At the Mcity kickoff event Monday, several companies demonstrated current projects. Honda showed off a pedestrian detection system that warns drivers of unseen pedestrians and applies the brakes automatically, Verizon demonstrated a prototype “digital license plate” it claims could streamline registration and renewals, and Delphi showed a system that uses cameras to analyze a driver’s eye movement to detect distraction.