Granted, Mcity is just a simulation; the buildings are just facades, and the inhabitants who unexpectedly step off curbs are just mechanized mannequins. “It’s pretty minimalistic,” admits Jonathan Levine, a University of Michigan professor of architecture and urban planning. “You wouldn’t mistake it for a movie set, let alone a real city.” But even so, researchers at the university’s Mobility Transformation Center have designed the facility to offer a realistic test of how driverless cars might function amid the daunting complexity of a dense urban environment. It is preparation for a future that is fast approaching.
According to a study released in April by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), major automakers such as General Motors are already rushing to add gadgetry that would give cars some ability to pilot themselves in low-speed, stop-and-start traffic-jam conditions or in single lanes on highways, or even to find parking spaces and pull into them without human help. Meanwhile, they and others—including technology giant Google—have been working to develop “level four” automation, in which cars are capable of taking over all the critical functions from human drivers. BCG predicts that the first fully autonomous passenger vehicles will hit the market by 2025, enabling humans to sit back and relax while a robotic chauffeur drives them to their destination—and returns later to pick them up at the curb.