While technology companies are fielding small fleets of autonomous vehicles around the United States, Toyota is planning to muster 5,000 test vehicles that communicate with each other in a single city. The enormous scale of the tests could help automakers and regulators understand how cars might share information to make driving safer.
The experiment will take place on the streets of Ann Arbor, Mich. with thousands of volunteer drivers, turning the city into a huge testing ground for connected vehicles and infrastructure. Toyota, the world’s largest automaker, is partnering with the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, which has helped develop similar projects with the Department of Transportation.
Autonomous vehicles will have to be connected to each other and infrastructure like traffic lights before they can reach the masses. By sharing position data with other cars on the road and the surrounding infrastructure, these connected vehicles could avoid accidents with greater sensitivity or prevent distracted drivers from running red lights. These are also connected to the internet, giving drivers access to services that they might expect from a smartphone.
Drivers who agree to participate in the experiment will install a small data-collection device in their trunk, while placing an antenna near the windshield and another antenna on the trunk lid. The device will constantly exchange speed and position data with other cars in the experiment and research equipment on certain roads and intersections.
The drivers are not instructed to take specific routes, as the researchers are trying to monitor everyday driving situations. The test results could assist Toyota to develop new technologies like automated braking and lane changes, which make driving safer for human rather than taking their hands off the wheel.
“The current limitation of connected vehicle testing outside of closed circuit test tracks is the lack of connected vehicles,” the company said in a statement. “In order to move autonomous driving toward reality, testing requires more cars, more drivers, and more day-to-day miles traveled than any combination of research facilities could support."
Toyota’s brute force approach stands in contrast to other forms of testing, like laboratory simulations and driving on closed-circuit tracks. Google X, the division of the search engine's parent Alphabet that develops autonomous cars, pioneered the practice of sending a handful driverless cars into cities around the United States. The company says that its cars have driven almost two million miles without any accidents.
These tests, which seem to preach the quality over quantity of research data, have occasionally been criticized by researchers. Last month, Duke University robotics professor Mary Cummings testified to the Senate that autonomous cars were “absolutely not ready for widespread deployment.” She cited the glaring lack of research data—especially on autonomous vehicles driving in snow and rain—and certification programs from government regulators.
Google’s “two-million-mile assertion is indicative of a larger problem in robotics, especially in self-driving cars and drones, where demonstrations are substituted for rigorous testing," Cummings said in her testimony.
Ann Arbor has slowly become a focal point for more rigorous testing into connected and autonomous vehicles. In 2013, the University of Michigan partnered with the Department of Transportation to connect nearly 3,000 cars and trucks in the Ann Arbor area. Over the next few years, the goal is to equip 6,000 more vehicles, including motorcycles and bicycles—even pedestrians—with wireless equipment.
In other projects, the University of Michigan plans to gradually seed Ann Arbor with more advanced autonomous and connected vehicles. The university hands over the information gathered in these experiments to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Government regulators review the data to ensure that connected cars are actually helping to reduce crashes and not distract drivers with features like replying to texts on the dashboard display.
Toyota’s plans were revealed not long after the company announced its third artificial intelligence and robotics center, which will be located in Ann Arbor. The company has already established two other centers, one in Palo Alto, Calif., adjacent to Stanford University, and a second in Cambridge near the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Last year, Toyota said it would invest $1 billion over the next five years in these research centers.