In the not-so-distant future, most new cars will come with connectivity features that allow them to link up with infrastructure and other vehicles. But no automaker wants to put untested features on the road, and it's hard to make sure that something like an automated toll-paying system works without testing it in the real world. The logical solution? A real-life sim city.
The University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI) and Xerox are teaming up to build a 32-acre simulated city, complete with intersections, benches, buildings, traffic signals and signs, street lights, obstacles, construction barriers, and every other complication of city life that a driver might encounter (except wayward pedestrians).
UMTRI has been testing vehicle to vehicle communications for the past few years; the sim city will allow researchers to start testing vehicle to infrastructure systems, too.
"What if the car itself could communicate itself to a toll road and pay the toll? What if the car could know when there’s an open parking space on-street, drive to the space, park there and then pay for it? The technology is there, it just hasn’t been integrated," says David Cummins, managing director of parking solutions for Xerox.
Partnerships with major automakers—Ford, GM, Toyota—will make it possible for the sim city to host all sorts of experiments like the ones mentioned above. Other possible tests: experimenting with visualization technology that can detect how many passengers are in a vehicle, and integrating GPS-based passenger information systems for buses into an overall urban mobility scheme (i.e. vehicle to vehicle communications for buses, and communication between buses and people waiting at bus stops).
"In cities today, the mid-20s to mid-30s generation have a myriad of different mobility options. They may not know how they’re going to get from point A to point B until they get on to the sidewalk. As part of this project, we are targeting that generation as much as the car owners," says Cummins.
While a sim city is a better testing environment than whatever smaller testing grounds automakers have worked with in the past, it's still not ideal. In real cities, there are issues that a sim city can't address—in San Francisco, for example, electromagnetic interference from trolleys and light rail can cause problems that would never be noticed in a simulation.
Still, Cummins believes that the sim city is a good enough testing ground that it can lift up promising technologies. "Our hope is that the auto manufacturers, government officials, everybody that’s watching this simulation and how these vehicles interact with infrastructure and each other will say, 'We want that. We want to try that in a real-life environment. We feel more confident in making that investment,'" he explains.
Construction of the UMTRI is expected to be finished by September 2014.