Collaboration with industry helped Mcity become a mobility mecca

December 20, 2021
Traffic Circle at the Mcity Test Facility

A Volkswagen Beetle named Herbie debuted in Disney’s 1968 movie, “The Love Bug.” The VW was one of the first and most popular self-driving cars. Almost 15 years later, a Pontiac Trans-Am named KITT made its entrance as a high-tech action hero. KITT not only could drive itself, but talk and fly in NBC-TV’s “Knight Rider” series.

These attention-getting Hollywood concepts have been fun to watch on the screen over the years. In real life, driverless vehicle technology has been under development for decades. Nonetheless, in 2021, truly autonomous driving — the ability to go anywhere, anytime, without human intervention — is still miles away.

Taking transformative technological advances in mobility from fantasy to everyday life requires more than visionary ideas. Robust research and effective collaboration among those with the tools and expertise to make it a reality are crucial. Meanwhile, difficult questions must be addressed about how automated driving affects laws, public and social policy, personal privacy, and more. There is much to do before self-driving cars can deliver on their promise of safe, efficient, equitable and accessible transportation. 

Cue Mcity.

Good planning, diverse perspectives

In May 2013, U-M launched the Mobility Transformation Center as a partnership with industry and government. Its mission was to dramatically improve the safety, sustainability, and accessibility of how we move people and goods.

MTC soon announced plans for a unique environment to evaluate the vehicles and technologies that would underpin this new mobility. The test environment, called Mcity, opened in July 2015. By 2017, Mcity was so well-known as the fake city for driverless vehicle testing that MTC was renamed Mcity. 

Today, Mcity continues to offer its industry members opportunities to collaborate on pre-competitive mobility-related challenges many of them share. They also help identify and prioritize the research projects Mcity should fund to help find solutions. In addition, member companies can use the Mcity Test Facility at reduced rates. They also have access to more than 70 sets of data collected from research projects and on-road vehicle deployments. 

Assembling this group of diverse organizations paved the way for collaborative, interdisciplinary research that goes beyond technology. Mcity addresses complex questions about connected and automated vehicles and the law, public policy, and urban planning. The center is also interested in how humans respond and react to advanced mobility technologies. 

Now in its third three-year membership term, Mcity and its industry partners benefit from  working together to produce strong research results, technological advances, new educational opportunities for the university, and community and public opportunities. Mcity also brings its members a competitive advantage through emerging CAV technologies, machine learning, near real-time data and 5G-connected computing.

“Our partners are the secret to our success,” says Huei Peng, Mcity director and the Roger L. McCarthy Professor of Mechanical Engineering. “The University of Michigan has global experts in mobility research. But collaboration that transcends industries takes what we can do together to the next level.”

Mcity Director Huei Peng
Mcity Director Huei Peng

What partners do

Mcity offers two membership levels: Leadership Circle and Affiliate.  

Leadership Circle companies collaborate with each other to help guide Mcity strategy and prioritize the research Mcity funds. In doing so, they can drive data collection and insights into areas that align with their own research initiatives. They engage with partner companies by participating in one or more Mcity working groups and collaborating on research projects. They work together on technology development using Mcity labs, including the Mcity Test Facility. Leadership Circle members also have opportunities to educate government officials on mobility innovations that could serve the public good. 

Affiliate members enjoy some of the same benefits. That includes potentially partnering with Leadership Circle companies on projects related to their unique research priorities. They also contribute to thought leadership efforts targeting government officials and the general public. They can join Mcity working groups, with approval from the Leadership Circle. Affiliate members are not involved in setting strategy for Mcity or selecting research projects for funding.  

Members at both levels have preferential access to the Mcity Test Facility and pay lower rental rates than non-members. They have access to results from over 50 research projects to date, representing an investment of nearly $30 million. Research topics range from mitigating liability for automated vehicles to pedestrian safety to motion sickness in driverless vehicles. Both groups also have access to more than 70 data sets generated by Mcity-funded research.  Affiliate access to research results and new data is delayed and may be limited. 

A monthly executive update goes to Leadership Circle and Affiliate members. The reports include coming events, media coverage of Mcity, details about new publications, and updates from Mcity’s five working groups. The monthly executive updates are the most frequent communication with members. They offer a way to stay informed between Leadership Circle meetings and biannual research reviews. Research reviews are open to both Leadership Circle and Affiliate members. 

Mcity’s working groups enable Mcity leaders, member organizations, and U-M researchers to work together to identify research funding priorities. Often, companies are drawn to specific working groups because of the nature of their own core work. The interplay between different industries, companies, and government entities makes conversations possible that may not otherwise take place. Leadership Circle and, in some cases, Affiliate members, can join any of five Mcity Working Groups. The groups cover the following topics: automated and connected vehicles, cybersecurity, legal/liability/insurance, accessibility, and outreach. 

An annual Mcity Congress focuses on thought leadership. Expert panels and well-regarded keynote speakers come together to discuss critical, timely issues in advanced transportation. 

Outcomes fuel further innovation

Mcity has always been more than a test facility. The center funds research, develops new testing technologies, and deploys early stage transportation concepts for shared learning. It publishes white papers, and builds relationships with transportation policy makers in Washington and in Michigan.

Some Mcity accomplishments under the leadership of Huei Peng, who steps down as director when his term ends on Dec. 31.

  • Mcity OS, a new cloud-based tool developed by Mcity engineers and introduced in February 2021, lets users design and execute complex yet highly repeatable test scenarios for CAVs, using any device with an internet connection. Mcity OS can be licensed for use at other test sites as well. The first license went to the American Center for Mobility (ACM) in Ypsilanti, Michigan.
  • Nearly a dozen white papers have been published to date based on Mcity-funded research projects. Topics range from how augmented reality makes driverless vehicle testing faster and safer, to measuring motion sickness in self-driving cars. One Mcity white paper estimates the volume of lawsuits that could result from intellectual property disputes in autonomous driving partnerships. 
  • 5G capability was added to the Mcity Test Facility, allowing communication and data sharing between vehicles and traffic infrastructure, such as light signals at intersections that can improve pedestrian and bike safety. This work was led by Verizon, a member of Mcity’s Leadership Circle.
  • TechLab at Mcity is a company-in-residence program for early-stage, advanced mobility companies in the connected and automated vehicle space. TechLab is run by Michigan Engineering’s Center for Entrepreneurship in partnership with Mcity. The program gives Mcity industry members a sneak peek at new innovations, great talent, and potential acquisitions. To date, over 120 students and 14 startups have participated.
  • U-M and Mcity are partners in a project that will link Detroit and Ann Arbor with a first-of-its-kind corridor dedicated to connected and autonomous vehicles. Other partners include the State of Michigan, Ford Motor Co., and ACM. Cavnue, a subsidiary of Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners, is leading development of the project’s first phase. 
  • The Michigan Mobility Collaborative, a group of Michigan-based organizations that includes U-M, won a contract from the U.S. Department of Transportation. The collaborative will fund research, development, and testing of self-driving technologies at the Mcity Test Facility and other test sites. Its goal is to improve mobility for seniors in Detroit and around the state through an automated shuttle service.
  • A2GO, an on-demand, autonomous vehicle shuttle service that runs in downtown Ann Arbor and between U-M campuses in the city, launched in October 2021 as a collaboration among May Mobility, Mcity, Ann Arbor SPARK and others. 
  • As in the rest of the world, Covid-19 brought changes to Mcity. Member companies pivoted to produce face masks and other personal protection equipment.  With the test facility closed during the early months of the pandemic, Mcity took advantage of the time to build a fake house inside the facility that can be used to test autonomous deliveries via cars and drones, explore accessibility solutions, and much more.
  • A virtual demonstration of the Mcity ABC Test in June 2021 demonstrated a potential methodology for proving the safety of automated vehicles before they are deployed or testing moves to public roads. Public trust in driverless vehicles nosedived in the wake of fatal accidents in early 2018, and persists today. If adopted, the Mcity ABC Test could help reverse that trend.
  • Mcity has published more than 70 datasets, nearly half of them with relevance for automated vehicle research and deployment. One example is the Mcity Driverless Shuttle research project launched in June 2018 on the public roads of U-M’s North Campus. Data was captured from more than 16,000 trips and 500 riders were surveyed about their experience.

It’s a connected future

Shaping the future of mobility requires diverse perspectives. Mcity members are automakers and parts suppliers, insurers, wireless service providers, and tech startups. They collectively represent the complex ecosystem necessary to reimagine transportation and improve quality of life for generations to come. Mcity’s collaborative vision is leading the way in transforming mobility, in Michigan and beyond.

Learn more about partnerships at Mcity

This story was written by Sheila Waterhouse.