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updated 7/20/2015 5:15:49 PM ET 2015-07-20T21:15:49

Imagine a town with crosswalks but no pedestrians, cars and trucks but no drivers. Welcome to Mcity, a fake "town" built by researchers who are testing out the driverless cars of the future.

The controlled test environment, which opened today (July 20) at the University of Michigan (U-M) in Ann Arbor, covers 32 acres (the size of about 24 football fields) and contains all the trappings of a real suburb or small city. There is an entire network of roads lined with sidewalks, streetlights, stop signs and traffic signals. There's even a "downtown" area complete with fake building facades and outdoor dining areas.

The idea behind Mcity is simple: test out new driverless car innovations in a human-free environment before these technologies are unleashed in the real world. [ Photos: The Robotic Evolution of Self-Driving Cars ]

"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," Peter Sweatman, director of the Mobility Transformation Center (MTC) at U-M, said in a statement.

The roads of Mcity are built to stand up to "rigorous, repeatable" testing, according to MTC officials. While Mcity drivers don't have to contend with real pedestrians, there will be one mechanical foot-traveler (a robotlike machine named Sebastian) that steps out into traffic to see whether the automated cars can hit the brakes in time. The simulated city also features a traffic circle, a bridge, a tunnel, some unpaved roads, and even a four-lane highway with entrance and exit ramps, according to a report by Bloomberg Business.

In addition to evaluating fully automated, or driverless, cars, the researchers also hope to test out so-called connected vehicles within Mcity's limits. Connected cars can either communicate with one another (vehicle-to-vehicle control, or V2V) or with pieces of equipment, such as traffic lights, that are located near roadways (vehicle-to-infrastructure control, or V2I).

Even the smallest details of Mcity have been planned out in advance to replicate conditions that connected and automated vehicles could face in the real world. For example, there are street signs covered up with graffiti, and faded yellow and white lane markings line the streets.

Mcity is just one part of a much larger project that MTC and its partner organizations are establishing in an effort to get a whole fleet of connected and driverless cars on the road in Ann Arbor by 2021. In addition to the fake city, MTC is also continuing to launch connected and semi-autonomous cars on real roadways. Eventually, the University of Michigan and the Michigan Department of Transportation said they hope to put 20,000 connected cars on the roads of southern Michigan.

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