As the world looks ahead to a future of interconnected, self-driving cars, this college town 40 miles west of Detroit has emerged as a one-of-a-kind, living laboratory for the technologies that will pave the way.
Here, it is not uncommon to see self-driving Ford Fusions or Lexus sedans winding their way through downtown streets and busy intersections, occupied by engineers with eyes focused more on laptops and test equipment than the roadway.
Soon students and staff members at the University of Michigan will be able to get around the engineering campus on fully automated, driverless shuttle buses provided by a French company drawn to Ann Arbor by the university's autonomous-car test track, known as MCity.
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And at any time of the day, some 1,500 cars — owned by university employees, businesses and local residents, and wired up by university researchers — radio their speed and direction to one another and to equipment like traffic lights and crosswalk signals. It is all part of a vast pilot project run by the university to develop connected-car technologies that someday should ease congestion and make self-driving cars safe.
"This combination of research and testing in a controlled facility like MCity, and testing on the street in the real world, on this scale, doesn't exist anywhere else in the world," said James R. Sayer, director of the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute.
Glenn Stevens can attest to that. An executive with a business organization that promotes the Detroit area's autonomous vehicle activities, he recently met with groups from the Netherlands, Germany and India.
"We're constantly hosting companies from every continent," Mr. Stevens said.