Appearances Are Deceiving at Michigan's Self-Driving Car Test Tracks

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Jan 18, 2017

ANN ARBOR, MICHIGAN—I’m standing in downtown Mcity, a fake urban block right out of the Truman Show that’s designed for testing self-driving cars. The realistic-looking storefronts are one-dimensional photo murals of actual stores in Ann Arbor, and similarly fake are the fire hydrants, mailboxes and traffic lights.

This fake block looks like it's in downtown Ann Arbor, not part of a test track. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The most surreal corner of Mcity is its stretch of superhighway—just 1,000 feet long, but complete with full-sized roadways and a very realistic exit sign—that goes nowhere. Speeds of 45 mph are possible.

This highway, complete with exit signs, isn't going anywhere. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Mcity, run by a public-private partnership and open since 2015, is just 32 acres on the University of Michigan’s North Campus, but it has 16 miles of roads—and automaker customers clamoring to get in. The university’s Mobility Transformation Center (MTC), is in charge, with partners that include Ford, Toyota, Nissan, Honda, Subaru and General Motors. MTC Deputy Director Carrie Morton says, “Our focus is on early-stage R&D. The technology is moving rapidly, but there are still a lot of scenarios that need to be prepared for—and can’t be tested on the public highways.”

Simulating the real world is essential for realistic autonomy testing. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Morton says 165 companies are involved in testing at Mcity, and the Department of Transportation is also involved. The university’s department of architecture and urban planning is also studying self-driving tech and its implications for cities. “How does autonomy affect land use?” Morton asks. “Maybe we won’t need parking anymore. We all wish we had a crystal ball, but it seems likely that this is a transformational moment, and personally owned vehicles will become more automated and more connected. Our hope is that those things combined will reduce pollution and congestion.”

Downtown street scene? Nope. It's like a movie set. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Automated Lincoln MKZs and Kia Souls are tested at Mcity, and the French-built Navya Arma operates out of the facility as well. It’s 100-percent autonomous (so-called Level Five), driverless and electric, and it can carry 15 passengers. An Arma provided shuttle service at the recent Consumer Electronics Show, and I saw Local Motors unveil a similar autonomous shuttle in Los Angeles. There seems little doubt that we’ll be riding these things soon.

Navya's Arma was an autonomous shuttle at CES--and it's tested at Mcity. (Navya photo)

On the test track, Dillon Funkhouser, a senior engineer at Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute, demonstrated advanced GPS technology that can flash the forward-collision warning—even when the car doing the emergency braking is not directly in front of it. “The more satellites we can use, the better the GPS,” Funkhouser said. “We have 12 satellites, the Russians have 12, and the Chinese want to build 12. That’s 36 satellites!”

The view from the control tower at Willow Run. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Mcity was the first of its kind, but it is, in fact, over-subscribed. Mcity is only 32 acres, and more room was needed, and that’s why the man who had the idea for it, John Maddox (who’s ex-Ford, Volkswagen and NHTSA) dreamed up the American Center for Mobility (ACM). It’s like Mcity, but much, much bigger, and focused on later-stage testing and validation. First, a little history.

Ford built a B-24 "Liberator" every hour at Willow Run. (Ford photo)

We are standing on the tarmac at Detroit’s second airport, Willow Run, near Ypsilanti. It’s where Ford Chairman Bill Ford and performance kingpin Jack Roush maintain their private planes. But it was once the arsenal of democracy, where Ford produced B-24 “Liberator” bombers during World War II at a rate of one every 55 minutes. This plant (once five million square feet, with only one small original building remaining) was where Rosie the Riveter worked and, arguably, won the war.

This mothballed B-17 "Flying Fortress" is headed for the Yankee Air Museum that will be on the premises. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Photos from those days line the wall in Hangar 1 as Maddox takes us up to the old control tower. From there, we can see a big vista of the 335 acres—which includes GM’s shuttered 2.1-million-square-foot Willow Run Assembly Plant, built in 1959 (and closed during GM’s bankruptcy).

This is Acetylene Annie, on the job at Willow Run. (

As ACM’s Laurel Champion explains it, the combination of Willow Run’s B-24 plant (40,000 workers) and, later, GM (more than 20,000), left this acreage with a lot of infrastructure—roads, bridges, underpasses, and more.

They built 8,685 Liberators at Willow Run, then Kaiser-Frazer moved in for a while. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Maddox gestures from the control tower, encompassing runways, roads and a lot of open space that’s now home to deer and foxes. “We’re going to have a highway loop [which will appropriate part of what’s now a public road], a 700-foot tunnel, urban and rural settings (with Mcity-like fakery), commercial properties and residential, even off-road areas,” he said. There will be a state-of-the-art 5G and cloud-based cellular network for testing connected cars, three-level interchanges (built for the bomber plant), and more.

This fueling station at Willow Run dates to World War II. History is all around! (Jim Motavalli photo)

ACM is run by the state of Michigan, the University of Michigan, and business leaders from Ann Arbor and around the state. Ownership is a big complicated, since it includes the federal Revitalizing Auto Communities Environmental Response Trust (RACER), set up to handle the redevelopment of former GM plants after the bankruptcy. Willow Run Arsenal of Democracy Landholdings was set up as a limited partnership to handle acquiring the property.

ACM is state based, but internationally focused—to date there aren’t many places around the world to fully test autonomous cars (though the Chinese are building one called “A Nice City,” reportedly based on American plans).

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder: "Mcity is the best of its kind in the world." (Jim Motavalli photo)

I spoke to Michigan’s technophile governor, Rick Snyder, at the Detroit Auto Show, and he’s excited by what Mcity and Willow Run offer—especially in terms of business development for the state. “Mcity is the best test facility of its type in the world,” he said. “The place was sold out in no time. And ACM, at the former arsenal of democracy, can be much larger, and use the roads and bridges that are already out there.”

The governor, who recently signed a law permitting self-driving cars on public roads in Michigan (and not only when they’re being tested), told me, “The technology is coming together at a fast pace, and a lot of the regulatory structures are coming together as well.” The state has started apprenticeship programs to train workers for the skilled jobs that autonomy will bring to Michigan. “We’ll need mobility technicians,” Snyder said.

Of course, Michigan also has a lot of bus and taxi drivers who could lose their jobs, and Snyder promises to have retraining programs for them. “We’re the comeback state,” he said. “There are six new hotels in Detroit.”

The goal is to finish the first phase of the $80 million project (with the highway loop) at Willow Run by the end of this year, and have it fully up and running by the end of 2018. “We don’t want to overbuild it,” Maddox said, “because we want to be flexible to change everything for different scenarios.” I get it; autonomy is a work in progress.

Here's a closer look, on video, at Mcity:


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