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Ghost town tests self-driving cars of tomorrow

ANN ARBOR: Tucked away on a tree-lined US college campus, a sprawling ghost town has been built to test the self-driving cars of the future.

MCity, which sprung up in an empty field a year ago like a Hollywood set, is where new technologies which are already radically reshaping the automotive industry must prove themselves before they make it to regular roads.

The 13-hectare (32-acre) site offers all the trappings of urban life, designed to reproduce the kinds of situations a self-driving car would encounter, like a child dashing into the street after a ball.

Traffic signals, street lights, cross walks, bicycle lanes, roundabouts, a railroad crossing, even construction: nothing has been left out of MCity’s design.

The Americana street names — Liberty Street, State Street, Main Street — and cheerful store fronts, bus stops, benches, mailboxes and garbage bins give MCity the appearance of a vibrant town.

But its cafes and restaurants are nothing but facades. Its inhabitants are a collection of data crunchers using cameras, radar, sonar and lasers.

For over a year, the faux town has served as a laboratory for testing the self-driving technologies of about a dozen companies, according to Jim Sayer, deployment director at the University of Michigan’s Mobility Transformation Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

“Generally speaking they are testing software and sensors: how the system responds in very specific scenarios that they set up,” Sayer told AFP.

The facility is able to set up a controlled experiment — for instance, how a tunnel or tree canopy might impact software. The test can be repeated time and time again while adjustments are made to sensors and software to improve performance.

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