Driven – Mobility Moments: Dr. Robert McMahan, Kettering University
Driven – Mobility Moments: Dr. Robert McMahan, Kettering University

The alumni of this institution are incredibly successful, and they go on to do amazing things across all industries. It’s an unbelievable track record. It’s here in Michigan, and it’s driving part of the next generation of mobility technology.

That’s Dr. Robert McMahan, president of Kettering University in Flint, the nationally-ranked STEM institution that educates the talent developing new ways of moving people, goods and services in the emerging mobility space. I met with McMahan at the Kettering University GM Mobility Research Center, a 22-acre state-of-the-art test facility on campus in Flint, to learn more about how Kettering’s unique education model prepares mobility talent, why that’s so important, who benefits, and so much more.

Stay tuned for this special edition of Driven’s Mobility Moments Podcast, on site at the Kettering University MRC. I’m your host, Claire Charlton.

As we got started, McMahan talked a lot about the history of the site, pointing out a memorial placed right in the facility that commemorates the General Motors sit down strike from the 1930s. He says it’s fitting for the Kettering University GM Mobility Research Center, or MRC for short, to occupy the space.

There’s a kind of a full circle, 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 in terms of the technologies that are being developed for it and software, the operating systems, information security, all these things we do. 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, but also for the larger community of Michigan as part of the ecosystem that the state is creating to support the development of mobility technology.

To facilitate all of those things, we looked at this property and decided to build a state-of-the-art mobility research center, a proving ground, to engineer and test and evaluate those the systems. Not only for our students and our faculty to use, but as importantly, for companies in the area to use and to partner with us or not partner with us, but just have a facility accessible. We built it on what was the home of the automotive industry in a real sense, certainly for General Motors. It’s a nice full circle use of the land.

But how does the MRC compare to and complement the other mobility testing assets that are already here in Michigan?

If we zoom out a minute and think about Michigan as an ecosystem, we have a number of really excellent testing and engineering facilities like Mcity and ACM. I really consider this kind of like the third stool in that triad because if you think about it, one of those facilities has a unique… It represents a unique capability in the system. ACM is this large scale expressway on ramps, you know, loops and all. Big scale kind of traffic management and infrastructure problems. Mcity is really directed at the urban environment, the urban core, the city intersections and railroad crossings and the like. Those two facilities are kind of complementary in their approach. We designed this to be complementary and fill in the other gap, which was kind of the classic engineering proving ground.

Somewhere that was very flexible, but focused primarily on providing all of the things you need to develop kind of the key and critical aspect of the problem, which is the communications and the operation of it. If you talk to people who are in the big three who are engineering these systems, what a lot of times they’ll say is, “You know, we’ve got coming up to a stoplight and stopping. We’ve got that figured out pretty well.” That’s not where the problems are. Where the problems are in these lots of nuanced and subtle interactions in the system. That’s where the problem is.

The Kettering University GM Mobility Research Center.

Why is it so important to have a place to test those nuanced communication challenges of automatic vehicles? McMahan recalls an incident of a major backup caused by a deer ranging across traffic lanes on the crest of a bridge right here in Michigan.

Going back to automatic, self-driving vehicles, are we really going to anticipate that bridges have deer on them? That’s not something that you would typically-

It’s out of the norm.

…program to, but it’s a very real possibility. It’s the kind of subtle interactions and the interactions between various elements of the system where a lot of the complexity comes. A ball comes out into the road. As a human, we know a ball is usually followed by something, but that’s a harder thing to teach a device. There was a case of a Tesla accident out in California not too long ago where the car was on autopilot and it was I think on the 280. The car was on autopilot. It was coming up onto a left side exit and it swerved and hit a concrete embankment. They thought at first this was a flaw, but they took a similarly equipped, same model Tesla, and they duplicated the test and that car swerved towards the embankment.

There was something in the visual field that it saw that made it think that that was where it needed to go. There are a lot of these kind of subtle interactions that you need a generalized testing and engineering environment to really optimize and to work with. That’s really kind of what this facility was built around.

One of the center’s most important features, McMahan explains, is something that is completely invisible.

As important is what you can’t see and that is all of the communications infrastructures that surround us. If you look over on this, oh you can’t see it, there’s a cell tower on that building over there. We operate a 4G LTE advanced, which is what you call 5GE now, a 5GE proprietary private cellular network. We’re the only university in the United States that does this and owns its own cellular network, has its own SIM card. It’s in this environment and it’s also in the city around us.

Because that proprietary communications network extends beyond the MRC into the immediate surrounding area, vehicle testing can continue outside the proving grounds in live road conditions. I asked McMahan to describe the MRC’s most prominent feature, a super smooth three-acre test pad that sits front and center.

The main feature here…this looks like a big parking lot, but it’s not. There’s only one company in Michigan that can lay asphalt to the precision of that space.


Yeah. That is a race track-quality surface, but it’s 24-inches thick. It can hold up to about 180,000 pounds.

Wow, okay.

There are no breaks, no cracks, no drains. It is a completely flat surface. It is flat to within one-eighth of an inch over about 20 feet.

Wow. Wow.

Yes. It is tilted exactly one degree from north to south. You can flood it by just sheeting water on this side and it will sheet down in the area into the drainage capture areas on the back side. This becomes highly configurable. You can do anything that you want to here on this. You can put lines. We put lines out there. We put roads. We put intersections. We put red lights. We do anything we want to out here. If we want to duplicate those or if you need an open proving ground, we have that too.

The Kettering University MRC is designed to be a flexible engineering proving ground.

The center also has an absolutely level surface for calibrating sensors and a road course with a sample of curves and loops, and the whole thing can be lit up for nighttime testing too. Companies, including tiered suppliers looking to test their components, love one key thing about the MRC, as McMahan explains.

You can always find a rough road in Michigan. I won’t go any further than that. [laughs]

No. [laughs]

Right. Perfectly smooth roads where there are… Now that comment will get me in trouble with governor, but perfectly smooth roads are very hard to come by, but are very, very important in removing all of the externals. If you’re testing the system, you want… If you’re simply trying to test road noise, the effect of road noise on of the wheels, on the system’s capabilities, you need an area that removes all of the externals from it unless you see what the pure performance of the system has. That’s the kind of environment we have here.

This facility was designed by individuals who also helped design GM’s testing ground in Milford. These highly specialized professionals graduated from, you guessed it, Kettering University. I asked McMahan to talk about how and why Kettering University’s cooperative education is critically important in the mobility age.

Kettering University is a jewel among American higher education institutions. Not just Michigan higher education institutions, but in… We’re blessed in Michigan because we have so many outstanding large public institutions, but this institution represents really a unique educational model in American higher education. Really the reason that it produces such incredible graduates and incredible outcomes, I mean, The Wall Street Journal ranks us as the top university in the nation for career preparation for students. The Economist ranked us seventh out of 4,000 universities in terms of social mobility of their students, economic mobility of our students, long-term career. I forget who else just ranked us in the top 25 universities in terms of lifetime return on investment. All of these things.

That would be the Georgetown University Center on Education and Workforce, 32nd out of 4,500 in 40-year net-present return on investment.

Which is incredible.

Which is incredible, and number one in Michigan.

Yeah. We do this year after year after year after year. It has to do with the true difference of what we do. The true difference is kind of best expressed I think by a quote that Charles Kettering… I’m going to mangle.


Okay. I’m going to paraphrase. But basically he said much more articulately than I am going to say it, he said something to the effective of, “If we taught musicians the same way we teach engineers, we would make them take 12 years of music theory before they ever touched a piano.” There’s incredible wisdom in that observation because when we… With a few gray hairs on our head. When we look back on our lives and we say, “Where did we actually learn to learn what we do? How did we learn to do what we do?” Very few of us point to our calculus class in college as the place that was foundational and gave us the answer. It is always the experiences that we’ve had, applying what we know that convert to knowledge and to capability.

The people who founded this university a hundred years ago this year recognized this fundamentally.

What is the critical difference between the Kettering co-op and any other university internship program? Kettering students are embedded in the industry in well-compensated positions in partner corporations for far longer than a term or a summer. From freshman year, students rotate every 12 weeks between industry and classroom. McMahan explains more about how classroom learning and in-industry learning are intertwined at Kettering University.

This place was founded with a different model. This place was founded with the understanding that these two things – the classroom and what you learn, and what you learn by applying it – are equal. One isn’t subordinate to the other. They’re equal. Only when you make them equally valuable, equally important, do you create a virtuous circle between them. By the time they graduate, they have a degree from one of the best STEM universities in the country, but they also have two and a half years of real application experience of what they have learned in a professional role as an employee of an organization with professional responsibilities. We don’t protect them. We don’t shield them. They are expected to comport themselves like any other professional in the organization.

They learn all of these things that we classify as soft skills. They learn how to move ideas to organizations. They learn organizational behaviors. Nobody operates as an island. We all operate in the context of organizations. We all have to be able to leverage and use organizations to advance ideas, to advance training. All of these things – all the important things – they learn.

We shifted our conversation to the adoption of next generation mobility, and McMahan shared his thoughts about two important consumer groups that he says will advance autonomous vehicle use. The first is a younger, digitally-connected generation that would rather be driven than drive, but the second group will regain independence when they can summon a vehicle to take them where they want to go.

The other piece that I think is… I relate this to my own personal experience. My father is in his eighties and he has Parkinson’s. He is no longer mobile. The single biggest trauma for him is the thought that he will lose his driving and will lose his ability to move independently. When you think of mobility as a solution for individuals, especially older individuals, disabled individuals, people who can’t normally access traditional mobility, that’s huge.

The mobility solutions being developed today have the potential to, in essence, solve real world problems for whole groups of individuals in our society. This also changes the focus of the talent pool from gear-centered engineering to person-centered problem solving. McMahan expands on this thought.

It does. It does. It changes what we as an institution do and how we prepare them. It should be said, we’re not just… although our history is with the automotive, we’re not just automotive in the sense that we have students in…we have students in the pharmaceutical industry and the biomechanical industry, the aerospace, finance. We’re a fully fleshed-out STEM institution now. You can grab a student over here on the quad and they’re working for Pratt & Whitney doing turbine design or they’re working for Amazon Web Services doing their new cloud service algorithm design.

I mean, they’re in all sorts of industries across the board. Many of them share this commonality with what you’re getting at. I guess it used to be that you would, going back decades, in a more traditional kind of engineering as we think of it, mechanical engineering or at least very tightly constrained or defined domains of engineering. You would come to learn to be a power train engineer. You would learn to be at this or you would do this or this kind of system. That’s not where the core is anymore because the students today have to be very multidisciplinary in how they do it. A lot of our programs here have cross-focuses. You might be in mechanical engineering, but you’re also taking a lot of computer science and you’re learning coding and you’re learning how operating systems work.

You have this kind of crossover, or you might be in computer engineering, but you’re also learning process engineering because where you’re going is something that is a hybrid between computing and systems engineering. It’s those kind of multidisciplinary kind of hybrid domains is where the talent pool needs to be to develop a lot of these technologies. Because an electric vehicle like a Bolt or a Tesla or any one of these, what is that? Well, it’s actually a rolling computer.

We agreed that more than ever before, students of all disciplines will have a role in mobility development. It’s not just an engineer’s world anymore.

Mobility is one of those things that’s going to touch every aspect of our life. There are a few technologies. One of the exciting times. I think it’s an incredibly exciting time to be in this area, in Michigan, in this space because this is one of those times when you are developing a technology that is going to redefine how we live our lives, like the automobile first did.

From a design-and-build perspective, McMahan says Michigan is an epicenter for mobility. He shares how Kettering is a part of that.

Michigan is incredibly well-positioned in the development of these technologies. I say this as someone who’s lived and worked in California, in the Bay Area, as well as here. The combination of skill sets, the level of talent that’s here and the ability to apply those skills to these kind of large not one-off cool things, but large systems and production of real stuff is really incredible here in Michigan. It really is. I love the work ethic of the state. When I was describing it several years ago, I said that they build things here. The nice thing about Michigan is we design and build anything.

Absolutely. Absolutely.

We do it all here.

All done here.

It’s all done in this ecosystem. Really, Kettering University is a jewel in that ecosystem.

He said it! Special thanks to Dr. Robert McMahan and Kettering University for welcoming me to the MRC for this edition of Driven’s Mobility Moments Podcast.

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For Driven, I’m Claire Charlton. Talk to you again soon.