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Future Tech: 

Mcity: An eerie ghost town built for driverless cars

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So quiet you could hear a pin drop.

Driving through Mcity is a uniquely unsettling experience. At a glance this small Michigan town is like any other, complete with crossings, road signs, and even a small selection of shops. Turning right onto Liberty Street, though – the town’s main thoroughfare – you’ll become aware of the eerie quiet.

First you’ll notice the deserted streets, then the empty cafés, and finally you’ll spot the town’s only real sign of life. A phantom car steers sleepily around a nearby junction – its driver seat is empty. The traffic lights switch to red and the car stops. Back to green, and it continues its lonely journey.

Just another day in Mcity, a fake town designed by the University of Michigan as a testing environment for driverless cars. Built on the university campus in Ann Arbor, the deserted site will welcome autonomous vehicles to test the latest tech on its quiet, yet surprisingly detailed road system. Everything is here from roundabouts and railroad crossings, to a four-way intersection and pedestrian walkways. There are even faded road markings and graffiti-covered traffic signs to test how the vehicles react.

It’s still chillingly quiet at the moment, but around $10million has been spent on building the town, and the university’s Mobility Transformation Center hopes to use its research at Mcity to put 2,000 driverless cars on the streets of Ann Arbor.

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From another angle, it’s easy to see why these shops are struggling for business.

All sorts of vehicles and technology will be tested on location, from fully autonomous cars, to vehicles that can communicate with eachother and the environment.

“There are many challenges ahead as automated vehicles are increasingly deployed on real roadways,” says Peter Sweatman, director of the U-M Mobility Transformation Center. “Mcity is a safe, controlled, and realistic environment where we are going to figure out how the incredible potential of connected and automated vehicles can be realized quickly, efficiently and safely.”

Although an expensive project, autonomous vehicles will need to be rigorously tested if they’re to be trusted on the road – and a recent study showed that 33% of Americans won’t even consider stepping into a car without a driver.

Understandably then, there are no real pedestrians risking the roads at Mcity, but instead a small robot-like machine named Sebastian will step into traffic unannounced to see if cars can slam on the brakes in time. Poor little guy – like a lamb to the slaughter.

Still, if these future driverless cars are going to crash, then what better place to do it than Mcity? Sorry Sebastian, your heroic actions will be forever in our hearts.

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