Have you ever played with a toy, remote-controlled car? Would you want to do it if the vehicle was the size and weight of the vehicle you drive? And, you were riding in it? People are doing that right now, right around the corner from you. What they learn may determine our transportation future. By now, you’ve likely heard of the American Center for Mobility. The testing site in Ypsilanti Township once housed the historic Willow Run bomber plant in the World WAR II era. It later served as home to The General Motors Power Train plant from the 1950’s until it was closed in 2010. 89.1 WEMU’s Jorge Avellan has taken a peak behind the curtain to get a look at what may, one day, be considered history-making technology.
"So this is Visteon’s autonomous test vehicle and we’re testing our autonomous driving platform DriveCore."
I’m sitting inside the car with Michael Ingrody. He’s the lead system engineer for the technology that Visteon hopes will help put autonomous vehicles on the road. But for now, it’s being tested at the American Center for Mobility in Ypsilanti Township. Ingrody drives into a closed track and that’s where the real fun begins.
Michael: I’m going to activate the autonomous system here. So you can see we are doing lane keeping right now. My foot is off the pedal, my hands are off the wheel.
Jorge: It’s going straight.
Michael: And then I can activate a lane change, so I press the one button on the steering wheel here, you can see the car moved over. I still have no hands on the wheel.
It’s a smooth ride as we drive down on a 2.5 mile highway loop. The car itself looks like a regular, late-model sedan. This one is white and has Visteon marked on the side. But a total of five sensors that are strategically placed outside of the vehicle makes it look like a car from the future. The car also has LIDAR technology, which stands for Light Detection and Ranging. Ingrody points out the sensors.
"Four in the corners, one in the front. And the idea there is, if you have multiple radars, if one goes down you can rely on the other ones. Same thing goes for our LIDAR. Two LIDARS there and two cameras as well. That censor redundancy is really important for safety because there are always the possibility for hardware problems. And for an autonomous vehicle to be safe, to keep the driver in a safe state, if you lose one of your important sensors, having a back-up is really important."
I then hop on a bus tour of the closed track with Mark Chaput. He’s the vice-president of construction and infrastructure at the American Center for Mobility. As part of the track, the Michigan Department of Transportation retired a section of westbound U.S. 12, near Wiard Road, for autonomous vehicle testing.
"As we’ve taken over westbound 12, MDOT was kind enough to leave all their old facilities here. They left their old signs, they left a deteriorating road for us to leverage in our test environment. We will be engaging with pot holes as they come. They’ve left signs that we’ll be leveraging and using again just to support our test activity."
The 500-acre facility also includes intersections, roundabouts, two double overpasses, and a 700-foot curved tunnel. Chaput explains why the tunnel is key for companies that use the testing site.
"One of the unique features about the tunnel, as vehicles are relying on satellite and GPS technology for location and positioning, all of that gets terminated when you get into the tunnel. The vehicle needs to learn how to transfer from maybe, the satellite sensor and receiving a type of scenario, to relying on local sensors off the vehicle themselves. Whether its cameras or LIDAR equipment to help determine where the barrier walls are for the tunnel, where the lanes are and maybe where other vehicles are when they are driving in that tunnel."
About $45 million has been spent so far on creating the facility that is leading the world in autonomous vehicle testing. Once fully completed, leadership at the American Center for Mobility predicts that $150 million will be invested. The expansion will include a headquarters and a lab with demonstration space. These projects are expected to boost the local economy, and while Washtenaw County Commissioner Ricky Jefferson supports them, he says he has one concern.
"We also need to protect our current residents from being too affected by housing costs going up because of this. So that is my main concern right now...is how is this going to affect those who are here, already located in the area with those who may want to come here?"
Fifteen Michigan colleges and universities will also bring life back to the former World War II bomber plant site. The University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University are among the schools that are participating in an academic consortium to train the next generation of high-tech talent at the American Center for Mobility.
The facility is expected to be fully operational by the end of 2019. As far as when you can expect to see all this new technology on the road, well, for now, that remains unknown.
Non-commercial, fact based reporting is made possible by your financial support. Make your donation to WEMU today to keep your community NPR station thriving.
— Jorge Avellan is a reporter for 89.1 WEMU News. Contact him at 734.487.3363 or email him firstname.lastname@example.org