Image Courtesy University of Michigan
Image Courtesy University of Michigan


A 32-acre, $6.5-million mini-city at the University of Michigan looks like a film set, with building facades that mask empty interiors or surround vacant lots. But the infrastructure in the ghost town is technologically advanced, with sensors and cameras attached to traffic signals that communicate with the cars on the street. But upon closer inspection, the cars are as empty as the buildings. The city itself is a test bed for advanced autonomous vehicles and smart infrastructure technology.

“The environment is a sandbox, and there are a few basic rules,” says Jim Sayer, deployment director at the University of Michigan’s Mobility Transformation Center, nicknamed M-City, in Ann Arbor. “You can’t kick sand, but the sandbox is here, and it’s a safe environment.”

In this case, “kicking sand” means traffic accidents, an event researchers try to avoid at M-City. For example, proximity sensors are embedded into the vehicles, the traffic signals and even the fake pedestrians the researchers shove in front of moving cars.

“Our focus in the past was primarily the sensors in the vehicles,” says Sayer. “But in the past three years, we’ve been moving to sensor technology in the infrastructure.”

The sensors include image processing for vehicle detection, which helps to control the signal phases on the traffic lights and communicate with autonomous cars. M-City is a smart test bed in which humans, infrastructure and vehicles are all talking via wireless signals and dedicated short-range radio communication. All the communications are labeled: vehicle to vehicle (V2V), vehicle to infrastructure (V2I) and vehicle to pedestrian (V2P).

M-City’s location in the middle of Ann Arbor is beneficial, says Sayer. To participate in the autonomous vehicle testing, the city has studded its public streets with infrastructure sensors.

“Ann Arbor has been doing that for four years now,” says Sayer. When the engineers are ready to test in the real world, albeit cautiously, they just have to drive out of the gate of M-City into the real world of Ann Arbor. Sayer observes, “It’s already wired up.”