The University of Michigan is building a 32-acre simulated city center complete with building facades, stoplights, intersections, traffic circles, and even construction sites to test driverless cars.
The simulated city, scheduled to be open this fall, will let researchers test how automated and networked vehicles respond to various and dangerous traffic situations and road conditions.
Having a spot where researchers can evaluate the safety of autonomous systems is a critical step in getting self-driving cars on the road.
"The type of testing we're talking about doing, it's not possible to do today in the university infrastructure," said Ryan Eustice, associate professor of naval architecture and marine engineering, in a statement. "Every time a vehicle comes around the loop, it can hit something unusual. That will give us a leg up on getting these vehicles mature and robust and safe."
There's an increasing amount of attention being paid to creating fully autonomous cars.
Sure, the auto industry has cars on the market that can parallel park themselves and alert the driver if they're about to back up into something.
However, Google, for instance, is working on creating fully driverless cars. The company has been road testing these cars for several years, having them drive on highways and, more recently, on city streets.
Then late last month, Google announced that its developing a car from the ground up that has no steering wheel, brake or gas pedals.
The University of Michigan's new test facility is set up to model the kind of networked and automated automobiles that university researchers expect to find in Ann Arbor by 2021.
A networked vehicle communicates with other vehicles in the area, sharing information about traffic speeds, jams and detours. Both networked and autonomous cars should dramatically reduce crashes, ease traffic and reduce pollution.
There's no word yet on whether Google will be one of the companies using the test facility.
However, the university announced that Ford will be testing its Fusion hybrid there. University scientists are working with Ford engineers to develop sensors and mapping technology for the vehicle.
The facility is being built to include merge lanes, road signs, railroad crossings and even mechanical pedestrians.
Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is email@example.com.