A Volkswagen Beetle named Herbie debuted in Disney’s 1968 movie, “The Love Bug,” and became one of the first and most popular self-driving cars. Almost 15 years later, a Pontiac Trans-Am named KITT made its entrance as a high-tech action hero that could not only drive itself, but talk and fly in NBC-TV’s “Knight Rider” series.
These attention-getting Hollywood concepts have been fun to watch on the screen over the years. In real life, driverless vehicle technology has been under development for decades. Nonetheless, in 2021, truly autonomous driving — the ability to go anywhere, anytime, without human intervention — is still miles away.
Taking transformative technological advances in mobility from fantasy to everyday life requires not only visionary ideas, but robust research and effective collaboration among those with the tools and expertise to make it a reality. Consider also the difficult questions that must be addressed about the potential impact of automated driving on our laws, public and social policy, personal privacy, traffic infrastructure, and more, and it’s clear: much work remains to be done before fully automated vehicles can deliver on the promise they hold for safer, and more efficient, equitable, and accessible transportation.
Good planning, diverse perspectives
In May 2014, U-M launched the Mobility Transformation Center as a partnership with industry and government to dramatically improve the safety, sustainability and accessibility of how we move people and goods.
At that time, MTC announced plans to build a one-of-a-kind test environment for evaluating the connected and automated vehicles and technologies that would underpin this new approach to mobility. The test environment, called Mcity, opened in July 2015. By 2017, Mcity was so well-known as the fake city for driverless vehicle testing that MTC was renamed Mcity.
Today, Mcity continues to offer industry an opportunity to collaborate with other companies on pre-competitive mobility-related challenges many of them share, and to identify and prioritize the research projects Mcity should fund to help find solutions. In addition, membership provides use of the Mcity Test Facility at reduced rates and access to more than 70 sets of data collected from research projects and on-road vehicle deployments.
Since 2015, nearly 60 partner organizations have leveraged almost $30 million in funded research and over 9,000 hours of testing at the facility.
Assembling this group of diverse organizations paved the way for collaborative, interdisciplinary research that goes beyond technology to address complex questions about connected and automated vehicles (CAVs), the law, public policy, urban planning, and how humans react and respond to advanced mobility technologies.
Now in its third three-year membership term, Mcity and its industry partners benefit from working together to produce strong research results, technological advances, new educational opportunities for the university, and community and public opportunities. Through emerging technologies in connected and automated vehicles, machine learning, near real-time data and 5G-connected computing, Mcity is also bringing a competitive advantage to its member partners.
“Our partners are the secret to our success,” says Huei Peng, Mcity director and the Roger L. McCarthy Professor of Mechanical Engineering. “The University of Michigan has global experts in mobility research, but collaboration that transcends industries takes what we can do together to the next level.”
What partners do
Mcity offers two membership levels: Leadership Circle and Affiliate.
Leadership Circle companies collaborate with each other to help guide Mcity strategy and prioritize the research Mcity funds. In doing so, they can drive data collection and insights into areas that align with their own research initiatives. They engage with partner companies by participating in one or more Mcity working groups, collaborating on research projects, and working together on technology development using Mcity labs, including the Mcity Test Facility. Leadership Circle members also have opportunities to inform and educate government officials on mobility innovations that could serve the public good.
Affiliate members enjoy some of the same benefits, including the ability to partner with Leadership Circle members on projects related to their unique research priorities and contributing to thought leadership efforts targeting government officials and the general public. They can join Mcity working groups, with approval from the Leadership Circle. Affiliate members are not involved in setting strategy for Mcity or selecting research projects for funding.
Members at both levels have preferential access to the Mcity Test Facility and pay lower rental rates than non-members. They have access to results from over 50 research projects to date, representing an investment of nearly $30 million, in topics ranging from mitigating liability for automated vehicles to pedestrian safety to the risk of motion sickness in self-driving vehicles. Both groups also have access to more than 70 data sets generated by Mcity-funded research. Affiliate access to research results and new data is delayed and may be limited.
A monthly executive update goes to Leadership Circle and Affiliate members, with information about coming events, recent media coverage of Mcity, details about new white papers and other publications, and updates from Mcity’s five working groups. The monthly executive updates are the most frequent communication with members, providing a way to stay informed between Leadership Circle meetings and biannual research reviews, which are open to both Leadership Circle and Affiliate members.
Mcity’s working groups enable Mcity leaders, member organizations, and U-M researchers to work together to identify research funding priorities. Often, companies are drawn to specific working groups because of the nature of their own core work. The interplay between different industries, companies, and government entities makes conversations possible that may not otherwise take place. Leadership Circle and, in some cases, Affiliate members, can join any of five Mcity Working Groups focused on the following topics: automated and connected vehicles, cybersecurity, legal/liability/insurance, accessibility, and outreach.
An annual Mcity Congress focuses on thought leadership by convening expert panels and well-regarded keynote speakers to discuss critical, timely issues in advanced transportation. We all keep the Mcity Congress on our calendars to stay abreast of the ever-evolving mobility landscape.
Outcomes fuel further innovation
Mcity has always been more than a test facility. The center funds research, develops new testing technologies, deploys early stage transportation concepts for shared learning, publishes white papers, and builds relationships with transportation policy makers in Washington and in Michigan.
- Mcity OS, a new cloud-based tool developed by Mcity engineers and introduced in February 2021, lets users design and execute complex yet highly repeatable test scenarios for CAVs, using any device with an internet connection. Mcity OS can be licensed for use at other test sites as well. The first license went to the American Center for Mobility (ACM) in Ypsilanti, Michigan.
- Nearly a dozen white papers have been published to date based on Mcity-funded research projects. The topics covered range from how augmented reality makes driverless vehicle testing faster and safer to measuring motion sickness in self-driving cars to estimating the volume of lawsuits that could result from intellectual property disputes in autonomous driving partnerships.
- 5G capability was added to the Mcity Test Facility, allowing communication and data sharing between vehicles and traffic infrastructure, such as light signals at intersections that can improve pedestrian and bike safety. This work was led by Verizon, a member of Mcity’s Leadership Circle.
- TechLab at Mcity is a company-in-residence program for early-stage, advanced mobility companies in the connected and automated vehicle space. TechLab is run by Michigan Engineering’s Center for Entrepreneurship in partnership with Mcity. The program gives Mcity industry members a sneak peek at new innovations, great talent, and potential acquisitions. To date, over 120 students and 14 startups have participated.
- U-M and Mcity are partners in a project that will link Detroit and Ann Arbor with a first-of-its-kind corridor dedicated to connected and autonomous vehicles. Other partners include the State of Michigan, Ford Motor Co., and ACM. Cavnue, a subsidiary of Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners, is leading development of the project’s first phase.
- The Michigan Mobility Collaborative, a group of Michigan-based organizations that includes U-M, won a contract from the U.S. Department of Transportation to fund research, development, and testing of self-driving technologies at the Mcity Test Facility and other test sites. The collaborative’s goal is to improve mobility of the senior population in Detroit and cities around the state through the integration of an automated shuttle service.
- A2GO, an on-demand, autonomous vehicle shuttle service that will run in downtown Ann Arbor and between U-M campuses in the city, will launch in October 2021 as a collaboration among May Mobility, Mcity, Ann Arbor SPARK and others.
- As in the rest of the world, Covid-19 brought changes to Mcity. Member companies pivoted to produce face masks and other personal protection equipment. With the test facility closed during the early months of the pandemic, Mcity took advantage of the time to build a fake house inside the facility that can be used to test autonomous deliveries via cars and drones, explore accessibility solutions, and much more.
- A virtual demonstration of the Mcity ABC Test in June 2021 demonstrated a potential methodology for proving the safety of automated vehicles before they are deployed or testing moves to public roads. Public trust in driverless vehicles nosedived in the wake of fatal accidents in early 2018, and persists today. If adopted, the Mcity ABC Test could help reverse that trend.
- Mcity has published more than 70 datasets, nearly half of them with relevance for automated vehicle research and deployment. One example is the Mcity Driverless Shuttle research project launched in June 2018 on the public roads of U-M’s North Campus. Data was captured from more than 16,000 trips and 500 riders were surveyed about their experience.
It’s a connected future
Shaping the future of mobility requires diverse perspectives. From automakers and parts suppliers to insurers, wireless service providers and tech startups, Mcity collectively represents the complex ecosystem necessary to reimagine transportation as we know it today to improve quality of life for generations to come. Mcity’s collaborative vision is leading the way in transforming mobility, in Michigan and beyond.
Mcity’s member partners are building a common understanding of the technology needed in the complex future of mobility, and they are building the solutions to make it happen through Mcity.