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Mcity: Why is the University of Michigan building a fake town?

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Paul Sancya/AP

(Read caption) A vehicle drives at Mcity on its opening day Monday on the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor, Mich. The 32-acre simulated city, complete with building facades, a roundabout, brick and gravel roads and other familiar features of urban driving, will be used to test driverless and connected vehicles.

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The University of Michigan just opened its new "Mcity" site, a 32-acre faux town with a downtown main street, a stretch of freeway, and multiple paved and unpaved roads. But Mcity's purpose isn't municipal, but technical: to provide a realistic test setting for driverless cars.

Built on the university’s campus in Ann Arbor, the “city” was designed to re-create the situations self-driving cars would bump into (or not) on the road. There are building facades, fire hydrants, trash cans, mailboxes, and even mechanized pedestrians and cyclists. The area will serve as a testing ground where the vehicles can experiment with real life situations over and over again.

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“Mcity” was officially launched during a ceremony on Monday, and cost an estimated $10 million.

“If you ever had one of those large play mats for toy cars as a kid, Mcity will look familiar. It features a variety of roads and streets, including a small section of freeway, a little downtown Main Street, an underpass, gravel and brick-paved roads, roundabouts, plus plenty of traffic signals and intersections. (Of course, this one is built for real cars and adults, not Matchbox toys.),” wrote Jonathan Gitlin for Ars Technica.

“The whole lab is also packed with networked sensors to collect data on tests conducted on its streets.”

Since 2010, Google has successfully tested a variety of driverless vehicles in locations across the country. Still, the company also confirmed that its prototype vehicles have been involved in 14 accidents since it began testing the self-driving cars 5 years ago, including 11 accidents during which the Google vehicle was rear-ended by another car.

This revelation led lawmakers in Michigan to support the concept of a closed testing site in their state.

While self-driving vehicles will be tested in Michigan in 2016, Sen. Gary Peters (D), a member of the US Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, stressed that "it's better to start in a closed facility." Senator Peters has authored several bills on advanced vehicle technologies in his role.

A similar facility, GoMentum Station, opened earlier this year in a private location in northern California. Several carmakers, including Google, use the site to test self-driving vehicles.