*When I was a kid, I’d sit and watch my grandmother while she sat and watched the microwave, marveling at its ability to heat a cold cup of coffee in one minute — WHILE THE INSIDE OF THE OVEN REMAINED COOL TO THE TOUCH, she’d say. “Ma” would tell stories of being a kid in rural Illinois and heating things up over a fire while I thought “What kinda prehistoric world was THAT?” and I’d watch movies like Back To The Future II depict what “the future” would look like.
While we fell short of seeing Marty McFly’s flying car, we’re looking at a world where driverless cars aren’t a “how” or an “if”, they’re a “when”. Ford is leading the way, testing driverless car technology in the faux Mcity, near Ann Arbor, Michigan.
While the Detroit manufacturer has been testing related technologies for about 10 years, their new testing program reflects their interest in moving self-driving cars from research to advanced engineering.
“We’ve been testing (autonomous) cars in the real world, but using a place like Mcity will allow us to refine our algorithms and better calibrate car sensors by repeating specific situations in a reliable way,” say Raj Nair, Ford’s VP of global product development.
The technology is so cool. Although I’d be nervous about riding in a driverless car — THIS control freak has to have the wheel — they’re right around the corner, and I hope I live to see it fully embraced. Almost makes me wish I’d stayed in engineering school.
Mcity is a 32 acre faux metropolis in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It opened this past summer, and is a joint project between the University of Michigan and the state’s Department of Transportation. Ford is one of the few major automakers contributing $1 million over three years to Mcity, which features traffic lights, freeway entrance and exit ramps, storefronts and other real world elements that engineers are using to further develop the technology, and develop autonomous cars that can handle a variety of situations.
While there are similar testing facilities on the west coast, Mcity has a critical element that positions the location as the premier testing site for driverless cars: long, brutal winters. An autonomous car’s radar, lasers, and cameras need to be able to cut through the murkiest of weather conditions. Snow often removes a camera’s depth perception, for example.
“A few people have joked (about Mcity) ‘Where are the Michigan potholes?’ We were thinking of adding them, but this coming winter might just do that for us,” says Peter Sweatman, director of the University of Michigan’s Mobility Transformation Center, which oversees Mcity.
“The goal of Mcity is simply to get the technology off our fake streets and on to real streets as quickly as possible,” Sweatman says.
I can’t wait to see those cars in action, and it sounds like that day will come soon. I’ll probably be standing on the curb marveling at them, just like my grandma staring at that microwave.
This article was written by freelance writer Michael P Coleman, who also marvels at his ever-expanding number of Twitter followers. Join the party at @ColemanMichaelP