For Road Trip 2015, CNET talks with the University of Michigan's Peter Sweatman about the rapid merging of computers and cars, and the fake city in Ann Arbor where it's being put to the test.
Peter Sweatman, director of the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute. Stephen Shankland/CNET
ANN ARBOR, Michigan -- Peter Sweatman isn't in charge of the computing revolution that's sweeping the auto industry, but he's at the center of it.
As director of the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI) in Ann Arbor, he's 30 miles west of Detroit and in the heart of car country. Ford, General Motors, Fiat's Chrysler and countless suppliers are all nearby, and they're getting even closer: a new project at the University of Michigan called Mcity will help carmakers develop the automated navigation systems of their self-driving vehicles.
Mcity is a 32-acre microcosm of motoring complete with faded stop signs, roundabouts, lousy weather and out-of-date traffic signals. There, automakers and others can test not just self-driving cars but also radio communications that link cars to each other and to road infrastructure.
By concentrating the work of many companies and academics, Mcity is an important facility for an auto industry embracing the powerful forces of the computing industry. It embodies not just Detroit's cooperation with Silicon Valley but also its competition with the tech hub for engineering talent and customer enthusiasm.
The Mcity effort unites the academic world of research -- such as UMTRI's study about how much self-driving cars could cut car ownership -- with real-world tests like the vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) study that's been under way in Ann Arbor since 2012. Backers include not just auto industry giants but also insurance company State Farm and high-tech companies like wireless chipmaker Qualcomm and network operator Verizon.
Sweatman. an Australian with a specialty in trucking safety who's worked in the public and private sector, has led UMTRI since 2004. He discussed the Mcity project with CNET News' Stephen Shankland. The following is an edited transcript of their discussion.
Q: Let's take it from the top. What is Mcity, and what is it going to accomplish for the industry?
Sweatman: Mcity is an environment for advancing connected and automated technologies. They're transformational and the public wants them, so we're going to have to move quickly. We created a Mobility Transformation Center (MTC) to concentrate on connected and automated technology, all its ramifications, and how we can move it faster into massive deployment. A key element of that is to have a safe off-roadway facility for testing automated vehicles. So we've created Mcity. It's a fake downtown -- a physical simulation of a dense, complex urban environment. It has many real situations packed into a 32-acre area -- city blocks, suburban streets, suburban arterials, rural roads, freeways and ramps, roundabouts, traffic circles and complex skewed intersections.
It's an interesting combination of thinking about human factors -- how the human interacts with vehicles and the infrastructure -- and about robotics -- how the machine behaves. We bring experts who understand these different worlds together at one test facility. The idea is to be able to reproduce the most challenging situations that vehicles find themselves in cities. We can keep repeating the same scenario so we can move forward quickly.
How many miles of roads are there?
Sweatman: We've got 4.2 miles.
What can you do at a place like this that General Motors or
Toyota couldn't do on their own test tracks?
Sweatman: For one thing, we have different varieties of real traffic signals. There aren't too many test facilities that provide that. We have a range of lighting conditions. We've got building facades we can move around. We've got mechanized pedestrians and will have mechanized cyclists. We've got a range of roadway surfacing -- concrete, asphalt, simulated brick. It's not just a track, it's an environment. All that detail is important, because the sensors in an automatic vehicle are trying to recognize the situation.
Self-driving cars are one big piece of this. Another is vehicle-to-vehicle [V2V] communications and vehicle-to-infrastructure [V2I] communications. How will that be tested here?
Sweatman: We started with connected vehicles with dedicated short-range communication -- DSRC -- nearly three years ago. We've still got a large number of vehicles in Ann Arbor operating in that mode. We decided to bring together that DSRC connected technology with various levels of automation based on sensors in the vehicle. There's a huge power in doing that. You can think of DSRC as the ultimate sensor that you're adding to the vehicle: not only does the vehicle have machine vision, the other vehicles are talking to your vehicle and giving it info that it otherwise wouldn't have. We see that convergence of connectivity and automation as critical. That's one of the first things we'll be investigating at Mcity -- to see what additional benefit we get with combining DSRC with automation.
There's a plan to expand that V2V and V2I along Interstate 96 and 696 [in the Detroit area]. How many vehicles will be equipped, and how much infrastructure will there be?
Sweatman: As we move from Mcity to Ann Arbor and to southeast Michigan, we get more vehicles and get to a point where we can see crashes being avoided. The Michigan Department of Transportation [MDOT] announced a smart corridor on I-96 and I-696 last year. That's already being deployed to provide the wireless DSRC communication.
We need to get to a point where drivers know and appreciate every day that their vehicle is communicating with intersections, ramps and so on, and that the driver is benefiting every day. Safety is important, but safety incidents only happen infrequently. It's easy for someone to forget why they have that system in their vehicle.
It's important to have smart corridors, we're going broader across southeast Michigan with the Michigan Department of Transportation. We're going to put 500 radios in that infrastructure within southeastern Michigan. Then, with our partners which happen to have large company fleets located throughout that area, we're going to capitalize on that opportunity to deploy 20,000 or more equipped vehicles across southeastern Michigan. That reaches the scale of a real deployment, not just a model deployment.
Walk me through how it works. If you're driving a car equipped with this radio communication ability, it's talking to other cars, to the highway, to onramps and offramps, traffic lights -- what actually happens?
Sweatman: You're getting warnings and information presented to you as the driver. One we found to be very popular in Ann Arbor is the electronic brake light. Imagine a car two or three vehicles in front of you in the traffic stream is braking suddenly. You can't see their brake lights or the vehicle, but the signal coming from that vehicle is picked up by your vehicle, so you're able to preempt that sudden deceleration.