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A Fake City's Real Purpose: Test Tomorrow's Driverless Cars

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It looks like a half-finished movie set, a ghost town, perhaps the beginning of a Truman Show-type reality program. But Mcity in Ann Arbor, Michigan, aspires to be a lot more than its cardboard cut-out homes and generic street signs suggest (see you at the corner of State and Liberty). A controlled test environment to QA tomorrow's driverless cars, automated vehicles and V2V (vehicle-to-vehicle) technology, this 32-acre site offers built-to-scale, simulated landscapes. Familiar obstacles such as streetlights, signals and sidewalks, as well as embedded sensors, test and measure the performance of new, high-tech rides finding their way through the suburban simulacrum.

The landscape looks pretty bland at first glance, but every small feature, from the underpass, which helps gauge how systems respond to losing a satellite signals, to signalized intersections and roundabouts, has a specific test purpose.

The University of Michigan has already made a sizable investment in the space, partnering with industry and government to test out fleets of connected vehicles and automated technology. With this project, the school hopes to become a center for research that helps develop an ecosystem of automated cars, a shared goal with Michigan government officials and auto industry execs hoping to keep the locus of automotive development from shifting to Silicon Valley. Mcity has already recruited more than a dozen corporate partners, including most of the major car companies (Ford, Nissan, Toyota and General Motors) investing at least $1 million each over the next three years.

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