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World-first autonomous car test environment

The University of Michigan has opened what it claims to be the world’s first controlled environment specifically designed to test self-driving cars, while Apple has reportedly been seeking a secure proving ground in California for its much-rumoured car project.

University of Michigan Mcity autonomous vehicle test facility
University of Michigan Mcity autonomous vehicle test facility

It seems that barely a week passes without autonomous cars making the headlines, a strong sign that we are headed towards a hands-off motoring future whether we – as drivers or technicians – like it or not.

University of Michigan Mobility Transformation Center director Peter Sweatman believes connected and automated vehicles will “be a game changer for safety, for efficiency, for energy, and for accessibility”.

“Our cities will be much better to live in, our suburbs will be much better to live in. These technologies truly open the door to 21st century mobility,” he said.

Spanning 13 hectares, the university’s Mcity facility is a simulated urban and surburban environment including roads with intersections, signs, traffic lights, street lighting, building fcades, pavements and roadworks.

Challenging environments that test the intelligence and problem-solving abilities of autonomous vehicle systems can be created, down to minor but potentially critical factors like graffiti on road signs or faded lane markings.

It means detailed and repeatable testing of new technologies can be safely carried out before real-world trials on public roads.

A swathe of technologies can be tested at Mcity, from vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications to fully driverless vehicles.

On the opposite side of the United States is another test facility called GoMentum Station, a former naval base in the San Francisco Bay area that is shrouded in secrecy and guarded by the military.

GoMentum Station near San Francisco
GoMentum Station near San Francisco

If the rumours are true and Apple is creating its own self-driving car, GoMentum Station would be the perfect place for the notoriously secretive Silicon Valley company to carry out trials.

According to the Guardian newspaper, correspondence obtained under the Public Records Act proves Apple has been making enquiries with GoMentum Station about using the 2000-hectare facility’s 32 kilometres of highways and city streetscapes.

The report says that in May, Apple engineer Frank Fearon wrote: “We would … like to get an understanding of timing and availability for the space, and how we would need to coordinate around other parties who would be using [it].”

If Apple is at the stage of planning where to test prototypes at a facility like GoMentum Station, the technology giant’s car project is further advanced than many anticipated.

Executive director of GoMentum Station’s parent company Randy Iwasaki confirmed to The Guardian that Apple has “come in and they’re interested”, but that he was sworn to secrecy under a non-disclosure agreement signed with Apple. A non-disclosure agreement he is probably in breach of by confirming anything at all.

With test facilities on both coasts of the United States and a long list of car manufacturers and component suppliers working on autonomous vehicle technology around the world, the science fiction idea of a robotic chauffeur looks soon to become science fact.