University of Michigan approves design for $6.5M autonomous vehicle test track

Merge lanes, roundabouts, gravel roads, a four-lane highway and street lights might feel like the “real world,” but the University of Michigan knows better. These are just a few of the elements in a $6.5 million track the school is building to simulate everyday driving conditions for the testing of connected and automated vehicles. U-M’s eight-member Board of Regents approved the track’s design during a March 20 meeting at the Michigan Union. The architectural firm Mannik Smith Group designed the facility. 

“This is a unique simulating environment,” said interim vice president for research Jack Hu. “This simulating environment will have roadways, traffic signs, signals.”

The track, dubbed U-M’s Mobility Transformation Facility, won’t go around in circles. Instead cars will merge into a series of lanes and travel down a 5-mile road with twists and turns. The facility will include a four-lane 1,000-foot straight asphalt road, merge lanes, a network of asphalt and concrete urban streets, a traffic circle, a crushed-gravel road segment and a concrete calibration pad.

“It is very likely the first of its kind,” former U-M Vice President for Research Stephen Forrest said in October, when the project was initially approved by regents. “It will allow vehicles to go through a little city.”

U-M President Mary Sue Coleman said on Thursday that the track is making waves in the higher education research community. “This is unique,” she said. “I’ve gotten a lot of comment about it.”

U-M wants to use the track to bring together government-funded research and industry partners from Michigan and elsewhere to advance futuristic automotive technology, which includes self-driving vehicles and smart cars that sense traffic patterns and dangerous drivers. There is a project in the works to have connected and automated vehicles on the streets of southeast Michigan by 2021.

Thousands of cars equipped with technology that senses other cars and traffic lights were travelling around Ann Arbor last year as part of a federally funded pilot on connected vehicles. The project made significant advancement in the understanding of connected vehicles, and it’s likely the federal government could require new cars to include wireless communication devices in the near future. 

U-M officials hope the new track can solidify Ann Arbor and southeast Michigan as a major hub of automotive technology research in the coming years. 

As a part of the project, U-M is also installing security fencing around the entire site, a covered pavilion, lighting, and electrical and networking infrastructure. This project also includes landscaping and storm water management, with a bridge, culverts, and bank stabilisation to minimise wetland impacts adjacent to Millers Creek.

The testing areas will be located south of Plymouth Road, west of Green Road and east of Huron Parkway near the offices of the Transportation Research Institute.

Construction is scheduled to be completed in the autumn of 2014.