By Susan Carney

Transform the future of transportation.

That was the goal in 2013 when the University of Michigan established the Mobility Transformation Center (MTC), a public-private partnership whose mission is to lay the foundation for a commercially viable ecosystem of connected and automated transportation that will revolutionize the movement of people and goods.

Today, the transformation is one step closer to reality with the debut of Mcity, which captured global attention when it opened in July. Built in partnership with the Michigan Department of Transportation, Mcity is the world’s first controlled environment designed to provide safe, rigorous, repeatable testing of connected and automated vehicle technologies before they are tried out in real traffic. In addition to Mcity, MTC has three on-roadway connected and automated vehicle deployments underway.

“This unique combination of a purpose-built test environment and real-world deployments sets U-M apart from other organizations and institutions doing similar work,” said Jim Sayer, director for deployment for MTC, which operates Mcity.

MTC does not disclose specific details about who is using Mcity or for what purpose. It is a closed facility and the work done there is confidential. Mcity has welcomed a variety of companies and groups for a range of purposes, including technology and vehicle testing, other types of research, tours, special events and media visits. The requests have come from MTC industry partners and U-M researchers, as well as external groups without an affiliation with MTC or U-M.

At the same time, MTC has emerged as a leading voice on connected and automated transportation and the future of mobility. The center’s Leadership Circle of industry partners has grown to 16 members, and the roster of Affiliate members includes over 35 companies. A second round of research proposals is due in March, adding to MTC’s portfolio of 19 funded projects.

At Mcity, the 32-acre test environment includes a network of roads with intersections, traffic signs and signals, streetlights, building facades, sidewalks and construction obstacles. Even seemingly minor details a vehicle might encounter in urban and suburban settings have been incorporated into Mcity, like road signs defaced by graffiti.

Those features helped attract Ford Motor Co., a member of the MTC Leadership Circle, to test its Fusion Hybrid Autonomous Research Vehicle at Mcity.

“Testing Ford’s autonomous vehicle fleet at Mcity provides another challenging, yet safe, urban environment to repeatedly check and hone these new technologies,” Raj Nair, Ford group vice president, Global Product Development, said in November when the company announced it was the first automaker to test an autonomous vehicle at Mcity. “This is an important step in making millions of people’s lives better and improving their mobility.”

Ford recently used Mcity to test the Fusion research vehicle in snow, one of the most challenging scenarios because the sensors that help make autonomous driving possible may not be able to see the road.

U-M continues to partner with industry and government to make significant investments in the advancement of intelligent transportation, including connected and automated vehicle technologies.

Connected vehicles anonymously and securely exchange data—including location, speed and direction—with other vehicles and the surrounding infrastructure via wireless communication devices. This data can warn individual drivers of traffic tie-ups or emerging dangerous situations, such as a car slipping on ice around an upcoming curve or a car that may be likely to run a red light ahead.

Automated vehicles are equipped with new systems of situation awareness and control that increasingly replace elements of human response and behavior. Such vehicles respond automatically to traffic situations by activating certain driving functions, such as acceleration, braking or steering. The highest level of automation allows for cars to be driverless.

“Every year, motor vehicle crashes claim thousands of lives,” Sayer said. “In fact, in the U.S., motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death of people under 35 years old. Last year alone, there were more than 30,000 fatalities. Connected vehicles could reduce up to 80 percent of unimpaired crashes.”