Winter arrived early and intensely, a series of mid-December snowstorms pounding metro Detroit. But while motorists might have been cursing out Mother Nature, the folks at the American Center for Mobility had reason to celebrate.
The season’s first big snow arrived just as the sprawling new facility, built on the site of a one-time B24 bomber plant, opened up after years of planning and construction. And, if anything, it gave good reason why automakers, suppliers and tech companies should be looking to Michigan as they bring their autonomous and fully driverless vehicle systems ever closer to production.
So far, testing has largely focused on places like California, Florida, Texas and Arizona, places where good weather is the norm. But when it comes to putting self-driving vehicles into production, the norm will be the exception. Just as human motorists must do every day, autonomous and driverless vehicles will have to cope with the unexpected. And that’s not just another driver running a red light but a sudden snow squall, or even a whiteout situation that makes it difficult to see things like lane markers, street signs, even traffic signals.
Located on the edge of the Willow Run Airport, in the Detroit suburb of Ypsilanti, the ACM sprawls over more than 500 acres of what once served as the heart of America’s old “Arsenal of Democracy.” Most of its old B24 plant is gone. Instead, the tract is now crisscrossed with a networks of roads, overpasses and tunnels designed to simulate both urban and open highway conditions. It allows for aggressive testing of technology at the ragged edge – and in ways that would be far too risky on public roads.
“Not all test miles are created equal,” said Gill Pratt, CEO of Toyota’s research center. “The road to creating a car as safe, or safer, than a human driver will require billions of test miles including simulation, real-world driving on public roads, and closed-course testing where we can expose our systems to extreme circumstances and conditions. The new ACM,” he added “is a significant step forward in this journey and will accelerate our ability to help prevent crashes and save lives.”
The ACM is operated by a regional collaborative dubbed PlanetM, and is being billed as a way to keep the State of Michigan at the center of the next era of automotive technology. To achieve that goal it isn’t operating solo. John Maddox, the president and CEO of the ACM offered a “shout out” to the Detroit Regional Chamber for being a “helpful partner” in getting the project underway.
Noting, “We believe education is critical,” Maddox added that the mobility center has already “formed a consortium with 15 colleges, universities and community colleges throughout the state to create education opportunities for the public and workforce.” That includes the University of Michigan, Kettering University, and Michigan Tech, all three operating their own, smaller autonomous research facilities. Washtenaw Community College has set up its own office, adjacent to ACM’s at Willow Run, so they can together explore “training for tomorrow’s autonomous workforce,” notes Maddox.
Another project, involving Michigan State University will be announced in January.
While ACM may play a central role in keeping Michigan at the heart of tomorrow’s auto industry, “The work done at Willow Run will help drive mobility solutions across the globe. This is an investment in the safe, rapid testing and deployment of transformative technology that will help improve peoples’ lives,” said Ken Washington, the Chief Technology Officer at Ford Motor Co.
Ford is one of a number of major donors who have helped bring Center into reality, donating $5 million towards its eventual cost of about $130 million. Other sponsors include Toyota, Hyundai, AT&T, and Visteon.
The first hands-free vehicles are expected to start reaching production by the end of the decade, with several manufacturers already beginning tests on even more advanced technologies. The Boston Consulting Group recently estimated that fully driverless vehicles operated by ride-sharing services alone could log as much as a quarter of the miles Americans travel by car by 2030.