Michigan to build fake-downtown robocar test site

I’m working on a new long article about advice to governments on how they should react to and encourage the development of robocars.

An interesting plan announced today has something I had not thought of: Michigan is funding the development of a fake downtown to act as a test track for robocar development. The 32 acre site will be at the University of Michigan, and is expected to open soon — in time for the September ITS World Congress.

Part of the problem with my advice to governments is that my main recommendation is to get out of the way. To not try too hard both to help and to regulate, because even those of us trying to build the vehicles don’t have a certain handle on the eventual form of the technology.

A test track is a great idea, though. Test tracks are hugely expensive to make, entirely outside of the means of small entrepreneurs. They immediately resolve most safety concerns for people just starting out — every team has had small runaway issues at the very start. Once past that, they can be shared, in fact having multiple vehicles running the track can be a bonus rather than a problem.

Big car companies all have their own test tracks, but these are mostly real tracks, not urban streets. Several companies have built pre-programmed robotic cars which drive in specific patterns to test ADAS systems and robocars. The DARPA Urban Challenge was run on an fake set of urban streets on an old military base, so this idea goes back to the dawn of the modern field. (Old military bases are popular for this — Mythbusters used a California one for their test of blind and drunk driving.)

This track will probably bring teams to Michigan, which is what they want. Detroit is in trouble, and it knows it. Robocars are going to upend the car industry. Incumbent players are going to fall, and new players are going to rise, and that could be very bad news for Detroit.

My home province of Ontario is facing the same problem, to a lesser degree. A lot of the Ontario economy is in cars as well, and so they’ve started a plan to introduce testing legislation. I don’t think this is the right plan — testing is already legal with a good supervising driver in most jurisdictions, though I have not yet examined the Ontario code. Ontario has one big advantage over Michigan, though, in that it is also a high-tech centre. Right now the car companies in Detroit are finding it very difficult to convince high-tech stars to come move to Detroit, in spite of being able to offer high pay and the fact that you can literally get a mansion for the price of the downpayment on a nice San Francisco condo. Toronto doesn’t have the same problem — in fact it’s one of the most desired places to live for Canadians, and for people from all over the world. Ontario’s combination of high-tech and big automotive might end up doing well.

At least in Ontario, everybody will be motivated to solve the snow problem sooner than the California companies are.

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