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Model city to drive development of autonomous cars | video

The University of Michigan's 'Mcity' is a purpose-built proving ground for autonomous cars.

Getting cars to drive themselves on freeways is - sort of - straight forward. Steady flow of traffic, large-radius bends and no pedestrians. A surprising number of modern cars can pretty much do this already.

Even Australia will get a close look at where technology is currently at, when Volvo's autonomous XC90 takes to a closed-off section of freeway in Adelaide this November.

Tasking autonomous cars to drive around town, however, where there are lots of people, stopping and things to hit and be hit by is a little harder. It's also considered unethical to trial new things on an unwilling public where the consequences for even the slightest mishap could be lethal.

Enter the University of Michigan, which has just opened up Mcity, a proving ground built for the sole purpose of helping develop fully-autonomous cars.

Located on the University's campus in Ann Arbor, about 70km west of the motor city of Detroit, Mcity combines a variety of road surfaces and types in order to simulate – safely – the variety of scenarios motorists have to negotiate on a day-to-day basis.

It has a main street, complete with fake shopfronts that wouldn't look out of place on a Hollywood movie set, as well as roundabouts, intersections, traffic lights, suburban streets, multi-lane roads, bridges, tunnels and even a stretch of freeway with on and off ramps spread across 13 hectares.

Mcity was designed and developed by the University of Michigan's Mobility Transformation Center (MTC), in partnership with the state's Department of Transportation.

Mcity is the first facility of its type built anywhere in the world

MTC director, Peter Sweatman said there are many challenges of developing autonomous driving technology and deploying it on real roads.

"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," he said.

The University of Michigan says Mcity is the first facility of its type built anywhere in the world with the goal of accelerating development of self-driving cars in a controlled environment.

Currently, most autonomous vehicle tests have taken place in make-shift facilities or on public roads.

Google's Self-Driving Car project, which started back in 2009, recently clocked up one million miles of driving around the Internet giant's homebase of Mountain View, near San Francisco, and Audi has been testing an autonomous A7 prototype on the streets of Shanghai, China.

Meanwhile Mercedes-Benz demonstrated their F015 Luxury in Motion autonomous concept at the Alameda Naval Air Station just across San Francisco Bay, near Oakland.