Innovative test facilities advance mobility safety

The American Center for Mobility (ACM) was created to advance the safety and intelligence of connected and autonomous vehicles, says Sean Kelley, senior vice president at The Mannik & Smith Group, one of several companies involved in the development of the vehicle testing site.

Adjacent to the historic Willow Run Airport in Ypsilanti, the 500-acre property was purpose-built specifically for connected and autonomous vehicle testing. ACM may look like a standard vehicle test track, but design innovation sets it apart.

The fully autonomous, driverless vehicles being tested today at ACM require an additional mobility-centric infrastructure with smart roads composed of fiber optics and sensors placed on light poles that create a connected roadway system. This smart infrastructure is, bit by bit, mirrored in public roads across Michigan. It’s also critical to the driverless future.

“MDOT [Michigan Department of Transportation] is on the cutting edge of creating smart roads,” Kelley says. “By [laying the groundwork for] connected roads, we are on a journey to where the car does not need a human to navigate it.”Sean Kelley is senior vice president at The Mannik & Smith Group. Photo courtesy of The Mannik & Smith Group.

Kelley says there are three ways connected and autonomous cars will get safer: through computer simulation; vehicle testing sites closed to the public called “closed system test beds” such as ACM and the University of Michigan’s Mcity; and testing done on public roads, “but the cars have to be pretty darned safe to do this.”

ACM has built real-world driving scenarios on-site – much like Michigan’s traditional proving grounds – but specific to connected and autonomous vehicles. The cars are tested in a variety of ways, such as their reaction to high-speed requirements on a 2.5-mile highway loop, or their ability to smartly navigate through an intersection or pedestrian corridor.

There’s also a 700-ft. tunnel where “wireless communication signals are blocked as cars enter the tunnel, so the cars have to figure out what to do when they are not connected to sensors on light poles and other places,” says Kelley. This innovation provides the space to test technology that isn’t necessarily important for legacy vehicles.

While ACM was founded by the State of Michigan in partnerships with MDOT, Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC), the University of Michigan, Business Leaders for Michigan, and Ann Arbor SPARK, users of the vehicle testing facility include automotive manufacturers, suppliers, and telecommunication companies, including startups investing in the new technology.

Technology that senses objects outside the vehicle, for instance.

“Sensors have to figure out is that thing a pedestrian? Another car? A bicycle? … There are an infinite number of things that object could be. … Right now, it’s the human with eyes that can see those things, but in the future the intelligence of the car has to figure it out,” Kelley says.

Mcity studies human trust in mobility

At 33 acres, U-M’s vehicle testing site Mcity is smaller than ACM and more research-focused for academia, says Kelley. Still, like ACM, users test the safety and effectiveness of autonomous vehicles at four-way stops, gravel roads, sidewalks, buildings, railroad crossings, intersections, and more.

Given our historic “humans-in-control” relationship with cars, Mcity researchers have also studied the conditions that need to be present for people to trust in the automated car’s decision-making. Researchers are crafting a three-tiered strategy to address safety in a controlled environment.

Legislators, regulators and insurance companies will also have to adapt to the world of self-driving cars. Who’s liable when a self-driving vehicle has an accident, for instance? Can a death caused by software error be justified even if the overall fatality rate caused by human error is greatly reduced?

“It’s a real interesting ethical question…. If a person causes his own death because of texting or drinking, then that person is responsible. But if the car is owned by a very responsible citizen, and the car’s software caused him to die, then that’s part of the discussion and could be the path that determines how far we get to autonomous cars,” Kelley observes. “But first, let’s get the cars safe enough so we can get to that discussion.”

ACM has built real-world scenarios on site specifically for the unique operations of the AV. Photo by ACM.
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