Self-driving vehicle proving ground tests cars before they hit open road

  • TECH
  • Tuesday, 02 Jan 2018

A Google self-driving car travels eastbound on San Antonio Road in Mountain View, Calif., in an October 2015 file image. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group/TNS)

DETROIT: The launch of self-driving vehicle testing at the American Centre for Mobility west of Detroit came with something that frequently confounds human drivers in Michigan – snow. 

But it's an element that actually boosts the value of the site, which was once the home of the famed Willow Run World War II bomber plant. The proving ground north of I-94 in Ypsilanti Township has been under construction for much of the past year and officially opened its first phase, which includes a 2.5-mile highway loop and 700-foot curved tunnel, on schedule in December. 

The centre notes that it offers automakers, suppliers, technology companies and others four-season testing, day and night, in sun, rain, ice and snow, elements it calls the "perfect environment" for testing driverless and connected vehicles before they are deployed on public roads. Those elements will also be big selling points for a facility that is one of only 10 in the country – several of which are in warm-weather locations – designated by the federal government as a self-driving vehicle proving ground and research hub. 

During the centre's first week, Visteon Corp used the tunnel and other locations to test its autonomous vehicle driving platform in a white Lincoln MKZ. Toyota, which was the first automaker to announce financial support for the facility, began an orientation and driver training. In coming weeks, two additional automakers are scheduled to begin testing, according to centre President and CEO John Maddox, who declined to name the additional automakers. 

Maddox said the centre was not only on target with its opening, but is ahead of schedule in its fundraising, with US$110mil (RM446.75mil) in funding commitments – US$65mil (RM263.99mil) from the state of Michigan and US$45mil (RM182.76mil) from private sources. Fundraising for later phases, including a planned national cybersecurity facility for vehicles and infrastructure, is continuing, he said. 

Construction on the second phase, which will include urban intersection and testing areas, is expected to get under way in the spring for completion by the end of next year. A final phase would include a technology park and headquarters building, which may begin construction in 2018 or 2019. 

"We've outlined (that) the whole strategy for this facility is to provide a place for companies to do automated vehicle product development right here in Michigan where they do ... their (research and development)," Maddox said, touting the facility's other big selling point, its proximity to key parts of the US automotive industry. 

In addition to providing a spot for driverless vehicle testing, the centre also intends to play a role in fostering voluntary standards for autonomous vehicle testing and in promoting education for an expected autonomous vehicle future. 

"We are strong supporters of the need for the industry especially to come together to try to think about how we might standardise" test procedures, Maddox said. 

That does not reflect a desire to pull back on testing. Maddox said it's important not to allow testing to limit the technology at this point. Maddox and others see standardisation as a way to create a "catalogue of scenarios" that deployed autonomous vehicles would need to be able to negotiate. 

Some critics have taken issue with how quickly autonomous vehicle-related technology has been deployed on public roads. But one such critic, John Simpson, who heads California-based Consumer Watchdog's privacy project, has said that facilities like the centre, which will seek to promote real-world testing off public highways, hold promise. 

As the first week of testing got under way, the centre also hosted officials with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, including Deputy Administrator Heidi King. Maddox said the NHTSA officials were getting an overview of test procedures and methodologies for evaluating autonomous vehicles. NHTSA did not respond to inquiries seeking information about the visit and how it might play into future autonomous vehicle testing guidelines. 

Maddox said the officials were excited about the educational component of the centre, which is working with a consortium of 15 Michigan colleges and universities on training opportunities related to autonomous and connected vehicles. 

"We know that there's a significant education need," Maddox said. "We need to educate a future workforce (and) we need to educate the public." Part of the education focus for the centre will be in determining the retraining needs for workers, such as truckers, cab drivers and shuttle operators, whose jobs may eventually be displaced by autonomous vehicles. 

"We're undertaking a study to understand the real effects and to quantify the real effects of automation on drivers," Maddox said. "There's a general kind of gloom and doom outlook for those jobs, but we don't really see it that way, or at least we don't think that that's the case and certainly they're not going to go away any time soon." 

Details about the study, including its cost, will be unveiled at the 2018 Washington (DC) Auto Show, which begins next month. Maddox said the study will involve Texas A&M and Michigan State University, and the centre will provide some money for the study. — Detroit Free Press/Tribune News Service

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