Did you know? Ann Arbor was home to a driverless vehicle test track 40 years before Mcity opened

March 18, 2022

The Mcity Test Facility opened in July 2015 as the world’s first purpose-built proving ground for evaluating the performance of connected and automated vehicles (CAV) and technologies.

That description remains accurate today.

But the Mcity facility was not the first test track in Ann Arbor designed for driverless vehicles. In August 1971, Bendix Corp. completed construction of “Driverless Transit Track” at a cost of $150,000, about $1 million today, according to the website Building Washtenaw, managed by Luke Vermeulon.

The track, with a 5,500-foot roadway, and a 2,000-foot inner loop, was built as the federal government was awarding contracts for Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) systems that would use relatively small vehicles to carry about 20 people. The vehicles would be controlled by a computer and operated without a driver. Riders would only have to push a button to call a ride.

Then, as now, increasingly congested roads, concerns about air quality due to pollution, and the decline in mass transit options (then due to the demise of streetcars and reduced rail service) fueled interest in PRT systems as a means to ease traffic problems, particularly in metropolitan areas.

In 1964, the Urban Mass Transit Administration, now known as the Federal Transit Administration, was created to start looking for solutions.

Bendix secured work from the government, as well as prime contractors, to test systems control technology for PRT vehicles on its Driverless Transit Track.

But by 1974 Bendix was considering selling its entire 43-acre property In Ann Arbor, according to a story in The Ann Arbor News at the time. The University of Michigan in 1983 bought property that included the track and an adjacent Bendix building.

Today, more than 40 years later, the Mcity Test Facility operates on a 32-acre site next to the old Bendix track, and maintains its standing as the leading CAV test environment in the world. The Bendix building was torn down in 2006, but the company’s Transportation Control Laboratory, where Bendix employees operated controls that guided driverless PRT vehicles on the Driverless Transit Track, is now part of the Mcity Test Facility.

Check out the photo gallery below, and the Building Washtenaw website to learn more about the Personal Rapid Transit project, and the Bendix driverless transit track.

Bendix Driverless Transit Track

Credit for all photos: The Ann Arbor News, via the Ann Arbor District Library and the Building Washtenaw website.