Michigan Broadens Its Ambitions for Autonomous-Vehicle Proving Grounds
From the vantage point of a visitor, there’s not much to see on the barren grounds that once held one of America’s most vaunted manufacturing facilities. Weeds have infiltrated what remains of the factory floor. Traffic lights sway in the breeze in an empty lot where thousands of workers once parked their cars. A rail spur leads nowhere. But standing on this dilapidated property similar to so many that have come to symbolize industrial collapse throughout the Midwest, John Maddox doesn’t see the remnants of a bygone era. He sees the future. Such vision requires creativity. One of the two remaining water towers on the west side of this sprawling complex? It could provide water that engineers use to re-create icy and rain-slick road conditions. The rail spur could be outfitted with gates and signals to replicate an actual crossing. Those traffic lights—they can be repurposed for use at custom-built intersections. Maddox leads a nonprofit that intends, soon, to transform these 335 forgotten acres at the Willow Run manufacturing complex in Southeast Michigan into the American Center for Mobility, an advanced proving ground for connected and autonomous vehicles of which Maddox is president and CEO.
Located between the headquarters of Detroit’s Big Three auto manufacturers and the R&D laboratories that have sprung up in nearby Ann Arbor, a high-speed testing center will fill a critical void and play an important role in getting self-driving cars ready for American roads, Maddox and state officials believe. In the fledgling autonomous age, this new anchor will allow automakers to examine scenarios too risky for real-world testing, determine how to safeguard data streaming off vehicles, and perhaps even one day explore how drones interact with freight movement. Plans for the testing grounds were announced in January. Over the past 10 months, executives in charge of the project have procured $20 million in funding from the Michigan Strategic Fund and added new details to what started as a broad sketch. Construction crews are scheduled to break ground early in 2017 on the first phase of the project, a 2.5-mile highway-style loop around Willow Run’s border that would permit the high-speed testing of cars and trucks. Should all go according to plan, that loop could be open for business by the end of 2017. Maddox concedes that’s an optimistic goal, but when automakers and suppliers are compressing their timeframes for delivering autonomous technology, the high-speed loop cannot be built soon enough.
American Center for Mobility Willow Run Michigan autonomous A portion of a road that will be used as part of the high-speed loop at the American Center for Mobility.
“We’re getting a lot of enthusiasm from the private sector,” Maddox said. “Certainly, if we had our highway loop running, we’d guarantee that it’d be busy. There’s a need right now. Other test facilities don’t look like the real road. So there’s definitely a strong demand right now.” Michigan’s Second Autonomous Test Facility Heightened demand is more than spillover from Mcity, a fully booked test center for autonomous and connected vehicles that opened on the campus of the University of Michigan in 2015 amid much fanfare. The current facility and the planned one differ in purpose and scope. Mcity focuses on early-stage research and models urban-area driving on its test track, while the American Center for Mobility, at roughly 10 times the acreage, intends to focus on higher-speed scenarios that can handle testing at maximum speeds of 80 mph for cars and 60 mph for trucks—compared with a 45-mph maximum at Mcity. That highway environment will contain road sensors and communications equipment necessary for testing truck platoons, groups of trucks traveling in close proximity together with their systems communicating in real time. Testing results are likely to suggest safety and fuel-efficiency improvements. Plus, ACM would provide a place for late-stage research and a means for manufacturers to test, validate, and perhaps self-certify their vehicles to federal standards. “We’d like to tie the two together,” said Maddox, who remains on staff of the University of Michigan’s Mobility Transformation Center in addition to his ACM duties. “We’d like for an automaker to test something at ACM, and then say, ‘You know, this particular point needs more research,’ and then be able to go back to Mcity.”
autonomous Willow Run American Center for Mobility An aerial rendering of the proposed American Center for Mobility.
Together, the two would complement each other and entrench Michigan’s position as a leader in automotive research. A 2015 study from the Center for Automotive Research found 75 percent of all auto-related research and development occurs in Michigan. But at a time when transportation technology is rapidly changing, other states are vying for larger slices of that research. Last month, California reversed its previous position that autonomous testing required human operators to provide oversight on public roads. A new law allows public-road testing in some parts of the state with cars that don’t have steering wheels or brake pedals. Michigan has countered. The state senate unanimously passed four bills related to autonomous driving in late September. The bills now head to the state’s House of Representatives for further consideration. Among their milestones, they clear the way for driverless testing on public roads and further development of the American Center for Mobility.
“The key question is how well you do in the sandbox and how well you play with everyone else.” – Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder
“I never thought it was just going to go to Silicon Valley,” says Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder. “There’s not going to be one place. It’s about building a network and playing to our strengths, and this is what we talk about with the supply chain and industry itself. You’re at the epicenter of where all that research is going on. Not all of it applies specifically to mobility, but that knowledge base is concentrated here, and [that makes] a tremendous difference in bringing in all these other elements.” While Michigan’s general participation in that research activity may be a foregone conclusion, conducting it specifically on the Willow Run grounds has become an improbable turn of events for a property with a riches-to-rags story in its recent past. Constructed by Henry Ford, Willow Run first rose to prominence during World War II as the home of Rosie the Riveter, when thousands of female workers assembled B-24 Liberators that became the aerial workhorses of the European theater.
General Motors purchased Willow Run in the 1950s and used it as a powertrain plant until it relinquished control during its 2009 bankruptcy. A federal bankruptcy court placed Willow Run into the hands of an independent trust formed specifically to clean up, rehabilitate, and sell former GM properties. Willow Run Michigan Mobility autonomous test facility For Michigan to turn such a “brownfield” site, generally regarded as a polluted eyesore, into a development that attracts technology business from across the country would be something of a coup. “We’ll take essentially public infrastructure that already exists, un-dedicate it from a traditional use, and put in an environment with overpasses and, essentially, a freeway traffic environment and all these other things,” Snyder said.
“We’re going to use an asset that we already have [and put it to] higher and better use.” For that to occur, much work lies ahead. American Center for Mobility still hasn’t taken possession of the property from the trust; that exchange is slated to happen next spring before construction begins. Once it does, things get tricky. Part of the highway loop incorporates what are now public roads, so the building process involves simultaneous projects among ACM, the Michigan Department of Transportation, and the Washtenaw County Road Commission. But the bigger challenge is funding. The $20 million already secured will fund operations of the nonprofit and construction of the high-speed loop. But approximately $60 million more would be needed for organizers to fulfill their full vision.
Thinking beyond 2017
On a mid-September afternoon, Maddox stands in an old control tower that was once part of the neighboring Willow Run Airport, which is still in operation. He points out the windows toward the western edge of the property, where the outer loop will run. Highway driving will be one of the first applications for autonomous cars in the real world, so in many ways, the loop is the most conventional part of the plan. Inside it, the more far-off autonomous future may be evaluated. After the first phase of building, ACM then wants to create a multilane “critical speed” intersection that would simulate America’s arterial roads. “We could test close-call scenarios there,” said Maddox, who held previous positions as a senior research engineer with Ford and associate administrator for vehicle safety research with National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “Obviously, no one wants to test them in the real world.” American Center for Mobility intersection Willow Run Once that’s completed, the blueprints call for development of areas for rural and residential testing, including cul-de-sacs and tree-lined streets. A simulated commercial district could contain a loading dock and multiple-deck parking structure, as automakers have shown considerable interest in figuring out how autonomous technology can upend the traditional parking garage. From the loading dock, automakers could figure out how to integrate drones into transportation. An aerospace company, Vayu, that makes unmanned aerial vehicles is located at Willow Run, and there’s potential for the two companies to work together. There are no plans for collaboration now, Vayu CEO Daniel Pepper says, but that could one day change.
“Certainly, if we had our highway loop running, we’d guarantee that it’d be busy. There’s a need right now.”
– John Maddox
“There are all sorts of applications,” Maddox said. “Imagine an airplane unloading in a commercial loading zone. Some freight goes to a truck and some goes to a drone. We think we could do a lot of that testing here. They could be used for monitoring traffic, for looking at snow and ice build up. Drones fit in with ground transportation.” Beyond surfaces and structures, though, the entire place will be equipped with sensors that provide information for vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications. Some of those systems have already been used on Michigan’s public highways, but it’s possible these communications could not only take place via Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC), but perhaps via 5G networks that don’t yet exist. Whether DSRC and 5G networks are competitive or complementary isn’t yet known—but Maddox wants to find out. “We’re going to test one versus the other and test them in less-than-ideal conditions,” he said. “Conceptually, they could work side by side very nicely.”
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With connectivity comes the need for cybersecurity, and that’s where perhaps some of the most ambitious aims of the American Center for Mobility reside. Snyder has been seeking funds to build a national automotive cybersecurity research center on the same grounds. Addressing car-hacking concerns will cost the industry $759 million per year by 2023, according to a recent IHS Markit report, and ACM would give engineers the means to probe vulnerabilities and potential patches without assuming real-world risks. Incorporating so many options into the proving ground stretches the timeline and drives up the cost, but in the end, the range of possibilities means that auto-related companies can test more than vehicles and extend into a more important place—the broader traffic environment. “The key question is how well you do in the sandbox and how well you play with everyone else,” Snyder said. “We obviously want to be on the road quickly, but you need controlled environments, safe environments, where you can create every kind of scenario you want.”