Mich. in fight to land autonomous car testing

Michael Martinez
The Detroit News

Michigan’s latest push to market itself as a leader in self-driving car development is part of a national scramble to secure federal funds, manufacturing jobs, investment — and bragging rights.

Last month, Gov. Rick Snyder and other policymakers unveiled Planet M, a marketing initiative meant to shine a spotlight on Michigan’s assets for testing connected and autonomous cars.

Among those assets: The 32-acre MCity test site for self-driving cars in Ann Arbor. Another 20-acre proving ground being built at Kettering University. Sixty miles of “connected” corridors — eventually growing to 350 miles — that allow roadway beacons to warn cars of hazards along Interstate 96, I-696 and U.S. 23. U.S. Army testing of vehicle-to-vehicle communications along I-69. And a planned 335-acre test site at the former Willow Run bomber plant.

Willow Run autonomous car test site needs $60M

But the Great Lakes State faces stiff competition from California’s increasingly advanced infrastructure. Aside from cold-weather research, the Golden State’s test sites, such as Gomentum Station and Moffett Field, can match any work being done at MCity. California’s own two-mile stretch of connected road along State Route 82 can transmit the same data as the sensors along southeast Michigan’s roadways.

Texas, Pittsburgh and Columbus also are planting their flags as autonomous vehicle development destinations.

“The competition that is happening between cities and states is really exciting; it’s resulting in governments getting actively involved,” said Lauren Isaac, manager of sustainable transportation at WSP Parsons Brinkerhoff, a Canada-based consulting firm. “The competitive spirit is helping to advance the technology.”

Michigan is in the pole position, many industry officials agree, because of its rich manufacturing base and history as the birthplace of the automobile. And state leaders see retaining Michigan’s auto capital crown as a matter of pride.

“This is our industry,” said Kirk Steudle, director of the Michigan Department of Transportation, earlier this year on a panel about autonomous technology. “When I read comments that come out of Silicon Valley that say they are Motor City West, that makes my blood boil. We are going to fight, we are going to kick and we are going to scream to make sure this stays here.”

Michigan’s major automakers and suppliers may be its biggest cheerleaders. Although nearly every company now has a presence in Silicon Valley, most of their research is still done around Detroit.

“By all rights, Michigan ought to have a better opportunity than any other state in the United States because of the infrastructure that’s already here,” said Jeff Owens, chief technical officer at Delphi. “You have progressive car companies, you have all the suppliers, you have universities that have a tremendous amount of capability. There’s a long history here.”

Becoming research friendly

Michigan’s transportation leaders have been attempting to make the state more attractive for autonomous car research.

MDOT recently secured $36 million in federal funding to install up to 350 miles of connected roads on highways across Metro Detroit by 2019. Roadside sensors gather information such as vehicle location, speed and driving habits from cars traveling along the path, and share it with other connected vehicles.

The first 155 sensors already are up and running along I-96 and I-696; along U.S. 23 in Ann Arbor; on Telegraph; and on Congress and Larned.

MCity, the 32-acre test site in Ann Arbor, opened last July. Partners, including Ford, GM, Toyota, Delphi, State Farm and Verizon, use it almost daily. A miniature city with crosswalks, bike lanes and building facades simulate urban driving. There’s a 1,000-foot straightaway for higher-speed tests, and roads made of concrete, asphalt, brick and dirt. Ford used MCity to test guidance sensors in snow and ice earlier this year.

The University of Michigan’s Mobility Transformation Center and MDOT pooled about $10 million to open the test facility.

The American Center for Mobility is in the process of acquiring land at the former Willow Run bomber plant in Ypsilanti that would allow the state to set up a number of testing scenarios. The site would include a downtown area with building facades; a highway-speed loop with merging, lane-changing and cloverleafs; a rural area with unmarked gravel roads; a residential/suburban area; and a simulated strip-mall parking lot.

And Kettering University this fall will cut the ribbon on a 20-acre research area with a test track and research lab at the former Chevy in the Hole plant site in Flint. It’s being funded by a $4 million grant from General Motors Co., and will be open for automakers and suppliers to test connected and autonomous car technology.

But California’s infrastructure is similar to Michigan’s.

It includes Gomentum Station, a 5,000-acre former naval weapons station in Concord that’s been converted to a test site. Honda and Mercedes have tested there since it opened in late 2014, and the site is in discussions with two other major automakers. Later this summer, Gomentum Station and startup EasyMile will launch a fleet of shared driverless shuttles at a business park in Northern California.

Gomentum Station has a license to test on 2,100 of the total 5,000 acres. Its test space has 20 miles of paved roadways with a seven-mile high-speed test road; a mini-city; intersections; twin 1,400-foot tunnels; and zones that mimic driving conditions in other countries.

“We want to create that all in one location so you have a one-stop shop for testing,” said Randy Iwasaki, executive director of the Contra Costa Transportation Authority. “There’s enough space to do it.”

The site is currently owned by the military. Iwasaki said it’s being split between the city of Concord, a regional park district and Contra Costa County.

Earlier this year, Nissan tested an autonomous Leaf at the Ames Research Center, part of Moffett Federal Airfield in Silicon Valley. The 500-acre site is owned by NASA, but Nissan and Google have tested self-driving technologies there, according to Terry Fong, director of the Intelligent Robotics Group at Ames.

California also has a two-mile stretch along State Route 82 with 11 intersections equipped with sensors. About six manufacturers and suppliers have used it to test vehicle-to-vehicle communication, and officials are seeking federal funds to expand.

Michigan transportation officials say there’s a definite rivalry with California, but the two areas need each other. “It’s ‘co-ompetition,’ ” Steudle said. “We’re cooperating, but we’re also in competition. We’re not just going to roll over and say it’s Silicon Valley so we’re going to shrivel.”

National, global competition

Detroit and Silicon Valley aren’t the only infrastructure hotspots.

Late last year the U.S. Department of Transportation awarded $42 million in grants to Wyoming, New York City and Tampa for connected-vehicle pilot programs.

Texas A&M is investing $150 million for a 2,000-acre research and development campus focusing on autonomous vehicles and other areas of study outside Bryan, Texas. About 100 miles west in Austin, Google and others are testing self-driving cars.

Pittsburgh has emerged as a destination for driverless-car testing due to work being done there by Uber Technologies Inc.

Nevada, Virginia and other states have autonomous-friendly laws that encourage testing, and legislators in Michigan are working to remove barriers to testing and operating here.

Columbus, Ohio, is the latest community to enter the discussion. The city last month won the Department of Transportation’s “Smart Cities Challenge.” It will pocket $40 million from the DOT, $10 million from investment firm Vulcan Inc. and an additional $90 million from Columbus to “become the country’s first city to fully integrate innovative technologies” for connected and autonomous cars. Mobileye, a tech company that creates cameras and map systems for autonomous vehicles, has said it will outfit the Columbus bus system with cameras that help avoid accidents.

Both Detroit and Port Huron submitted proposals, but neither was selected as a finalist.

Anil Valsan, global lead analyst for automotive and transportation for consulting firm EY, said the race to develop infrastructure has become global, with Singapore, the United Kingdom, China and others offering incentives and building what’s needed.

“The risk the industry’s facing is that it could go away from a product-oriented industry to a service-related industry,” he said. “There’s a sense of pride and a sense of trying to protect their space. For Michigan, it’s particularly critical.”

Valsan views Michigan as a leader in the U.S., but said it’s playing catch-up in some instances to California — and will only face more competition.

“Automakers need to do testing under various driving conditions, and different states offer different geographies,” he said. “I don’t believe there will be a clear winner.”

(313) 222-2401