Crash-prone Ann Arbor intersection is basis for driving simulation


University of Michigan researchers have developed the first statistically realistic roadway simulation, based on data collected at a particularly perilous intersection on the south side of Ann Arbor.

While the simulation currently represents data from a two-lane roundabout at South State Street and Ellsworth Road, future work will expand it to include other driving situations for testing autonomous-vehicle software.

The simulation is a machine-learning model trained on data collected at the roundabout that is recognized as one of the most crash-prone intersections in Michigan and, conveniently, just a few miles from the offices of the research team.

Known as the Neural Naturalistic Driving Environment — or NeuralNDE — it turned that data into a simulation of what drivers experience every day. Virtual roadways like this are needed to ensure the safety of autonomous-vehicle software before other cars, cyclists and pedestrians ever cross its path.

Cars drive in the roundabout at South State Street and Ellsworth Road, an intersection that is being used in a simulation to test autonomous-vehicle software. (Photo courtesy of U-M Transportation Research Institute)

“The NeuralNDE reproduces the driving environment and, more importantly, realistically simulates these safety-critical situations so we can evaluate the safety performance of autonomous vehicles,” said Henry Liu, professor of civil engineering and director of Mcity, a university-led, public-private mobility research partnership.

Read the study

Liu also is director of the Center for Connected and Automated Transportation and corresponding author of the study in Nature Communications.

Safety-critical events, which require a driver to make split-second decisions and take action, don’t happen that often. Drivers can go many hours between events that force them to slam on the brakes or swerve to avoid a collision, and each event has its own unique circumstances.

Together, these represent two bottlenecks in the effort to simulate our roadways, known as the “curse of rarity” and the “curse of dimensionality” respectively. The curse of dimensionality is caused by the complexity of the driving environment, which includes factors like pavement quality, the current weather conditions, and the different types of road users including pedestrians and bicyclists.

To model it all, the team tried to see it all. They installed sensor systems on light poles that continuously collect data at State and Ellsworth.

“The reason that we chose that location is that roundabouts are a very challenging, urban driving scenario for autonomous vehicles,” said Xintao Yan, a Ph.D. student in civil and environmental engineering and first author of the study, who is advised by Liu.

“In a roundabout, drivers are required to spontaneously negotiate and cooperate with other drivers moving through the intersection. In addition, this particular roundabout experiences high traffic volume and is two lanes, which adds to its complexity.”

The NeuralNDE is a key component of the Center for Connected and Automated Transportation’s Safe AI Framework for Trustworthy Edge Scenario Tests — or SAFE TEST — a system developed by Liu’s team that uses artificial intelligence to reduce the testing miles required to ensure the safety of autonomous vehicles by 99.99%.

The SAFE TEST essentially breaks the “curse of rarity,” introducing safety-critical incidents a thousand times more frequently than they occur in real driving. The NeuralNDE is also critical to a project designed to enable the Mcity Test Facility to be used for remote testing of autonomous-vehicle software.

But unlike a fully virtual environment, these tests take place in mixed reality on closed test tracks such as the Mcity Test Facility and the American Center for Mobility in Ypsilanti, Michigan. In addition to the real conditions of the track, the autonomous vehicles also experience virtual drivers, cyclists and pedestrians behaving in both safe and dangerous ways.

By testing these scenarios in a controlled environment, autonomous-vehicle developers can fine-tune their systems to better handle all driving situations.

The NeuralNDE is not only beneficial for autonomous-vehicle developers but also for researchers studying human driver behavior. The simulation can interpret data on how drivers respond to different scenarios, which can help develop more functional road infrastructure.

In 2021, the U.S. Department of Transportation awarded the U-M Transportation Research Institute $9.95 million to expand the number of intersections equipped with these sensors to 21. This implementation will expand the capabilities of the NeuralNDE and provide real-time alerts to drivers with connected vehicles.


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