The Kettering University GM Mobility Research Center (MRC) in Flint is so perfectly placed in its environment, it’s hard to imagine the land it occupies was ever used for another purpose.

But the expansive, state-of-the-art proving ground for next-generation connected and autonomous vehicles was once the site of scores of buildings that made up the largest automotive manufacturing facility in the world. As Kettering University president Robert McMahan looks out over the MRC’s acres of smooth roads shaped by design precision, he sees the original Chevrolet assembly plant, the Fisher body plant across the street, and the giant bridge that connected the two. He sees the area where the historic General Motors sit-down strike of 1936-1937 took place.

And McMahan, who is president of Kettering University, recognizes how perfectly the MRC, designed and built to test high-tech mobility vehicles, gives new life to the historic property that once generated shiny new GM vehicles.

“There’s a nice, full-circle quality to what’s happening here because we have such strong programs in automotive, we are naturally evolving into the mobility space, and are leading in many areas in the mobility space,” says McMahan. “It made sense for us to build a proving ground on campus to provide a testing and engineering space for what’s happening on campus, and also for the larger community in Michigan as part of the ecosystem that the [state of Michigan] is creating to support the development of mobility technologies and autonomy.”

Kettering University MRC: a classic engineering proving ground

Michigan’s mobility test facility landscape is growing incrementally, and each asset provides a unique environment for clients and researchers working to perfect their technologies, says McMahan. The American Center for Mobility in Ypsilanti is geared toward large-scale infrastructure and traffic management, while Mcity at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor is densely designed for testing urban-centric mobility.

The Kettering University GM Mobility Research Center is a flexible space designed to accommodate the many needs of mobility clients when testing technologies.
The Kettering University GM Mobility Research Center is a flexible space designed to accommodate the many needs of mobility clients when testing technologies.

The MRC completes the testing landscape with a classic engineering proving ground that is flexible enough to test nuanced mobility challenges, says McMahan.

“It’s [in] the kind of subtle interactions and the interactions between various elements of the system where a lot of the complexity comes,” he says. “A ball comes out into the road, and we know a ball is usually followed by something human. But that is the kind of a subtle thing that’s harder to teach a device.”

The only facility of its kind on a university or college campus in the United States, the MRC provides test and research space for the university’s 600 corporate partners, as well as startups and automotive and mobility clients. The 3,000-square-foot Harris Mobility Research Annex provides space for prototype development, with a vehicle lift and drive-through bay, and supports various fuel sources, including gasoline, propane, natural gas, hydrogen, and electric with an L2 EV charging port. The test pad, which is viewable from the annex, has no breaks, seams, or drains; can be customized for testing in diverse weather conditions; and has a consistent 1% slope in one direction with a quarter-inch tolerance over 10 feet in any direction.

Uniquely invisible infrastructure

The MRC’s most impressive feature is completely invisible, but critical to the connected nature of autonomous vehicles: a 4G LTE advanced proprietary private cellular network.

“We’re the only university in the United States that owns its own cellular network…and it’s in this environment and also in the city around us,” McMahan says.

This comprehensive communications infrastructure supports V2V and V2I communication in the protected environment of the MRC, as well as in the region that immediately surrounds the center.

“Here, you can take a car that’s being engineered on this facility and actually move it into a relatively reasonable urban landscape in the same protected envelope,” McMahan says.

Kettering University and MRC develop mobility talent

Kettering University students and faculty in engineering, computer science, and life sciences use the facility for instruction and research, which uniquely positions Kettering University to develop the talent needed for the present and future of mobility. Layered with the co-op education that is the foundation of a Kettering educational experience, access to the MRC provides further experiences for Kettering students to develop unique skills critical to the mobility industry.

“A lot of our programs have cross-focus, so you might be in mechanical engineering, but you’re also taking a lot of computer science and you’re learning coding and how operating systems work. … You might be in computer engineering but you’re also learning process engineering because where you are going is a hybrid between computing and systems engineering,” says McMahan.

“It’s those kinds of multidisciplinary hybrid domains where the talent pool needs to be [in order] to develop a lot of these technologies. Electric vehicles like the Bolt or Tesla, what is that? It’s actually a rolling computer.”

Photos courtesy of Kettering University GM Mobility Research Center