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Inside the fake town in Michigan where self-driving cars are being tested

The University of Michigan teamed up with automakers, tech companies and the Michigan Department of Transportation to create a place to test self-driving cars. (Video: University of Michigan)

Later this year a Michigan pedestrian named Sebastian will spend his days throwing himself in the path of speeding cars. It’s all in the name of research. Fortunately, despite the human name, Sebastian is just a mechanized pedestrian that the University of Michigan is building as part of MCity, its 32-acre environment for testing self-driving cars.

The “city,” built on the university’s campus in Ann Arbor, is designed to re-create the situations self-driving cars would encounter on the road. There are building facades, fire hydrants, trash cans and mailboxes. Soon there will be Sebastian, and eventually mechanized cyclists, too (no word on a name for those yet).

MCity officials says the experience there is more valuable than testing on public roads, because rare, real-world situations that a self-driving car could struggle with can be practiced over and over again.

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“The testing becomes incredibly efficient,” said Peter Sweatman, director of the university’s Mobility Transformation Center. “One minute we’re in a downtown block with buildings and so on. The next minute we’re in a suburban street with a tree canopy.”

The artificial tree canopy was built with a system of water tubes to simulate the moisture in trees, which can block GPS signals.

While there are urban and suburban blocks, MCity also includes a short expressway with off- and on-ramps, which Sweatman says can accommodate speeds up to 40 mph. MCity includes a 70-foot simulated underpass and two railroad crossings.

“We’ve taken a look into the future and really tried to pinpoint what will be the most challenging aspects of this rollout of self-driving cars on public roads,” Sweatman said.

Mechanized pedestrians and cyclists will allow dangerous situations to be tested without risking anyone’s health. “You have to get awfully close to a crash to test those kind of things properly,” Sweatman said. “We hope we’re not actually going to hit them too often.”

The Mobility Transformation Center partnered with the Michigan Department of Transportation and technology and car companies to fund the project. While some of its partners have already been doing tests in MCity this year, the center held an official opening ceremony in Ann Arbor on Monday. Sweatman estimates about $10 million had been invested in MCity so far.

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He says that 48 companies have signed up as partners, including Ford, General Motors, Nissan, Bosch, Delphi, Honda, Toyota, State Farm, Xerox and Verizon. Google and Uber are not among the partners.

Nokia’s Here group, which provides the navigation maps found in many U.S. cars, will be creating detailed maps of MCity to help guide self-driving cars. These maps are accurate to between 10 and 20 centimeters. Everything from the height of curbs and stop signs is tracked.

“We strongly believe as an organization that it’s not possible for one player to do this on their own,” said Nokia spokesman Alex Mangan. “And, really, the industry — and I’m talking about players from really every corner of our industry — are going to need to come together with one vision to be able to execute this at scale.”