The University of Michigan's mock city serves as an accelerated test track to prove AVs as a clean and safe mode of transportation.

In Michigan, first-of-its-kind facility yields ‘ABC test’ for autonomous vehicle safety, efficiency

A lot of connected vehicle and autonomous vehicle testing has been taking place in the U.S. over the last few years, especially in warm weather areas including California, Florida, and Phoenix. Scientists have an easier time with initial testing in places that don’t have snowy, icy roads. But a major player in AV testing is right here in the Midwest.

Mcity is a 32-acre mock city facility on the University of Michigan North Campus in Ann Arbor that is used for testing connected and autonomous vehicles, or AVs, to achieve cleaner, safer, and more equitable transportation. The public-private partnership brings together academia, government, and industry to advance transportation innovation by putting AVs through real-life scenarios in the mock city. It is touted as the world’s first controlled test environment for this purpose.

This summer, Mcity leaders held a virtual event to give an insider’s look at the first demonstration of the testing concept that Mcity engineers developed to prove AV safety before the vehicles are allowed on public roadways.

Easy as A-B-C

The premise of autonomous vehicles is to reduce roadway deaths and injuries while saving energy, said Greg McGuire, associate director at Mcity. But public trust is a major barrier toward connected and autonomous vehicle acceptance and adoption. 

“If automation is going to help us as one of the tools in our toolbox to improve transportation safety, the technology first and foremost has to be trusted,” McGuire said. 

Mcity leaders say their testing plays a crucial role in assuring the public and gaining trust. The concept is referred to as the “ABC test.” Mcity publicly unveiled the key components of the ABC test during the demonstration last month:

  • A: Accelerated evaluation — There is not time to drive the hundreds of millions of miles necessary to prove a vehicle technology concept, so the evaluation is accelerated at the testing facility by focusing on the most common risky driving scenarios. 
  • B: Behavior competence — Mcity developed a library of 50 AV scenarios that a vehicle should demonstrate before deployment on public roads. Most are commonly encountered driving scenarios.
  • C: Corner cases — Push the limit of AV performance and technology to the boundary (corner).

A ton of math and data is involved in carrying out the ABC test concept, said Huei Peng, Mcity director. Mcity tried its best to gather data to build the 50-scenario library for testing, but it is “by no means complete,” Peng said. “We are looking at this library as a starting point.” 

Event attendees saw how the ABC concept would work for testing 7 of the 50 concepts in the library, including highway merge, opening door, deer in road, crossing pedestrian, and roundabout merge. Not all of the 50 scenarios are relevant in every case. For example, many areas don’t have roundabouts. 

After every test, the engineers determine if the vehicle passed or failed and whether its reaction was safe. For example, the vehicle might brake hard to avoid crashing into an obstacle, but that could create problems for vehicles behind it. Engineers would determine how well that AV executed the scenario given its options.

A white paper about Mcity OS was released this spring. Credit: University of Michigan

This spring, Mcity engineers also unveiled new software and hardware, Mcity OS, that they developed for AV researchers to create and execute complex, sophisticated, and easily repeatable tests. The cloud-based operating system can be integrated into other testing facilities and real-world environments. It provides instructions to control all the features of the Mcity facility, such as vehicle interactions at intersections, train crossings, and crosswalks.

What’s next

Mcity’s leaders say a lot more research and testing is needed before the ABC test concept can produce reliable, repeatable results at all times. 

“Doing those things with a high degree of repeatability requires orchestration. That’s really the concept behind Mcity OS — that’s what it was developed to do,” McGuire said. “It’s our hope that it can get picked up and used as a concept in industry.”

They are calling on others to help with advancing the process and technology. A key goal is to standardize highly automated vehicle testing to ensure safety. Doing so would lead to greater public trust in AVs, they said.

“The ABC test concept can be used as a blueprint for standardized testing for AVs,” Peng said.

Mcity is not a commercial entity and is asking collaborators to scale up the concepts developed at the facility. 

“We’re here to showcase the techniques, help develop them, and then see them off — like sending our kindergartener to school for the first time,” McGuire said.

Mcity’s testing is performed on their own vehicles. Further advancing the technology should involve rounds of testing on an original equipment manufacturer’s vehicle, they said.

“We are calling for help,” Peng said. “No single entity can have enough data. … We need to make sure we collect [data from] as many miles as possible.”

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