Mcity in Ann Arbor Draws $5.1M NSF Investment to Enable Remote AV Testing

An open source, connected, and automated research vehicle parked on the roundabout at the Mcity Test Facility. // Courtesy of Joseph Xu/U-M
An open source, connected, and automated research vehicle parked on the roundabout at the Mcity Test Facility. // Courtesy of Joseph Xu/U-M

The National Science Foundation has invested $5.1 million in Ann Arbor’s Mcity, which operates the world’s first purpose-built test environment for connected and autonomous vehicles, to enhance its testing capability.

The investment will enable the facility to add virtual reality software and generate real-world datasets so Mcity can provide tailor-made simulation scenarios for AV software testing.

“The new digital infrastructure combining real-world data sets with high-quality simulation capabilities and a physical test track will set Mcity apart from other AV test facilities, and enable remote use,” says Henry Liu, professor of civil and environmental engineering at U-M and director of both Mcity and the Center for Connected and Automated Transportation, a regional university research center funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

“The proliferation of AVs and connected vehicles will create a safer travel environment, and by making this next generation version of Mcity available to a wider range of researchers, we believe we can help accelerate adoption.”

Research efforts in the AV arena can be hindered by a lack of access: access to real-world data, to high-quality simulation environments, and to physical testing facilities. By overlaying digital infrastructure on physical infrastructure, Mcity can provide all three.

“Since its launch in 2015, Mcity has solidified the University of Michigan as a global leader in driving the future of mobility,” says Alec D. Gallimore, U-M’s Robert J. Vlasic Dean of Engineering. “This investment will increase access to the state-of-the-art test facility, providing more equity to researchers across the country who are on the forefront of this societal shift, navigating the transition to a new world of safer, greener, more equitable, and accessible mobility for all.”

Real world data sets that support Mcity simulations are collected from select smart intersections in Ann Arbor and Detroit, with more intersections to be equipped. Each intersection is fitted with privacy-preserving sensors to capture the motion of everything from cars to pedestrians, categorizing each road user and identifying its speed and direction. That information can be instantaneously sent to connected vehicles in the vicinity, triggering onboard warnings when cars are in dangerous situations. Mcity partners on these projects.

The U-M Transportation Research Institute, where Liu also is a research professor, has been collecting this kind of data — between vehicles and the surrounding environments — in Ann Arbor for a decade. At its peak, nearly 3,000 vehicles were involved, making it the largest connected vehicle deployment in the world. These projects provided evidence that connected vehicles have the potential to significantly reduce crashes by 80%, where driver impairment is not a factor.

Earlier this year, U-M completed a $1.5 million upgrade to a building on the Mcity Test Facility site that will be used to monitor testing. The structure once housed the traffic control center for a test track built by Bendix in 1971 for research on early driverless vehicles.

Mcity’s evolution is the latest addition to U-M’s expanding portfolio of research projects tied to the future of mobility. In July, the state of Michigan approved a budget that included $130 million for a new EV center led by Michigan Engineering. U-M already is home to UMTRI and the Walter E. Lay Auto Lab and is a founding partner of the American Center for Mobility in Ypsilanti.

“NSF invests in a broad array of fundamental research and new technologies for smart transportation, ranging from semiconductors and microelectronics to wireless communication, contactless electric vehicle charging and artificial intelligence,” says Susan Margulies, assistant director for engineering at NSF. “Testing these vehicle technologies in real-world scenarios is an essential step for transferring innovations to businesses, communities and drivers.”