Shaping the transportation frontier

Brian O'Connor

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Michigan stakes claim as world leader in connected-vehicle testing.

The stakes are high. Studies show the emerging, autonomous-vehicle industry represents a $3 trillion opportunity for Michigan companies.

Besides being home to the most auto manufacturers and suppliers, and being one of only a few states with legislation permitting driverless-car testing and deployment on public roads, Michigan also has the most connected- and autonomous-vehicle testing facilities. 

“We’ve established ourselves as really allowing and fostering the development of this technology in the state,” said Collin Castle, Intelligent Transportation Systems program manager at the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT). 

Already, the U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC) in Warren, Mich., completed its second phase of autonomous-vehicle testing on a Southeast Michigan road. And auto suppliers Continental AG and Magna partnered in 2017 to test connected- and automated-vehicle technology on a 300-mile drive that culminated in border crossings between Michigan and Canada.

“There is so much infrastructure here in terms of the supplier base to support vehicle engineering and development, including the universities and the entire eco-system that supports the auto industry,” said Chris Hennessy, vice president of power train engineering at IAV Automotive Engineering Services. 

The company, which opened a tech center in Northville in 2009, tests for discrete vehicle functions, including platooning for a group of vehicles, such as military convoys, that travel closely together at high speed. 

Hennessy also touted Michigan’s labor pool: “Its engineers are familiar with the automotive industry and the architecture of electrical and control system and how to integrate these developing technologies into that vehicle architecture.”

Why Testing Is Crucial

Exhaustive testing of connected- and driverless-vehicles is critical for two reasons — because the vehicle is potentially making decisions on behalf of the driver and to see that the design concepts are achievable in the real world, explained MDOT’s Castle. 

“If a manufacturer is going to have to absorb liability for all the scenarios that might occur, we have to know how the system is going to behave,” added IAV’s Hennessy. 

As a result, Michigan is collaborating with manufacturers, suppliers and others to make sure laws, signs, traffic signals and even the markings on roadways can support and communicate safely with autonomous vehicles.

Academia Advances Automation

In addition to offering specialized degree programs focusing on automotive technology and design, several Michigan universities have established their own advanced-vehicle testing, research and technology facilities.

  • Mcity sits on a 32-acre site on the University of Michigan’s North Campus and features about 16 acres of roads and traffic infrastructure with intersections, traffic signs and signals, sidewalks, simulated buildings, streetlights and obstacles, such as construction barriers. Mcity’s researchers also are developing new testing approaches, such as augmented reality scenarios and accelerated-testing procedures.
  • Michigan Technological University’s Keweenaw Research Center at the Houghton County Airpark in the Upper Peninsula provides computer modeling and four-season vehicle testing that includes endurance, durability, handling and mobility. Michigan Tech is one of eight universities, including Michigan State University, participating in the AutoDrive Challenge this spring, where college students from its robotics group design, build and test a fully autonomous vehicle.
  • Kettering University GM Mobility Research Center in Flint once housed General Motor’s Chevrolet division. Now, the 21-acre track and testing site has a 3.25-acre customizable test pad. Officials expect to complete the Center’s research annex, which includes labs and vehicle bays, in summer 2018.

President Bob McMahan said Kettering already is testing sensors and sensor array for auto manufacturers. However, one big testing challenge, he noted, is that when autonomous vehicles initially launch, they will need to interact with mostly human-driven vehicles. 

“We’re not going to deploy these technologies and invalidate the entire existing fleet of automobiles,” McMahan said. “The behavior of autonomous vehicles is much more predicable than for human-driven vehicles. A lot of testing and evaluation is built around managing that interaction.”

In addition to these physical test sites, numerous institutions, such as the Washtenaw Community College, are developing national leadership to prepare students for the entire range of occupations necessary in this field.

In 2017, the American Center for Mobility (ACM) announced it was partnering with 15 Michigan colleges and universities to establish the Academic Consortium at ACM, which will create additional educational pathways for student to learn how to support automated-vehicle testing and implementation.

Michigan’s Connected Car-Testing Culture

Seeing the advantages to testing in the state, more companies are locating new test facilities and tech centers in Michigan. For example, Waymo, the autonomous-vehicle arm of Google’s Alphabet and the research arm of Toyota North America plan to test their driverless vehicles in Michigan.

About 50 employees plus contract workers test software, hardware and sensor technologies at the Toyota Research Institute in Saline and Ann Arbor. 

The Institute recently invested $5 million in ACM, a 500-acre nonprofit testing and product development facility designed for testing and validation of connected- and automated-vehicle technology. ACM is one of only 10 federally designated proving grounds for automated-vehicle technologies. (ACM received $50 million from State of Michigan for construction on the grounds of the former Willow Run Bomber Plant, a manufacturing facility Henry Ford built during World War II.) 

“We estimate that you need upward of a trillion miles of testing data to anticipate and predict all the anomalies that can happen in the real world,” said Rick Bourgoise, communications manager for the Toyota Research Institute. “The only way you can develop your algorithms and software is to put vehicles on the road.”

Quantum Signal CEO Mitchell Rohde agreed. He said one of the big elements of autonomous vehicle testing is that, unlike conventionally driven vehicles, companies cannot test individual components separately. 

His advanced engineering research-and-product development company works with automakers and the U.S. Army to provide modeling and simulation tools for road testing, such as remote-control and shared-control technology, where a remote operator can take control of a vehicle that encounters an unexpected condition. 

“We’ve always had a good experience with Michigan,” said Samit Ghosh, president and CEO of North American auto divisions for P3, which has 150 engineers, consultants and analysts that test connectivity, electrification, autonomous and cybersecurity technologies at its Southfield office.

“Technology can be developed in numerous places, but the integration into vehicles needs to happen close to the automakers and their supplier base,” said Ghosh. “And that’s the ideal situation here in Michigan given the density of auto companies that we have.”

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