Chinese firm gives UM $27M for autonomous car research

Michael Wayland
The Detroit News

Correction: This story has been updated to correct Jack Hu's title.

The University of Michigan will receive $27 million from a Chinese investment firm to aid in the institution’s driverless vehicle and robotics research, including assisting in creating a new test facility in China.

UM President Mark Schlissel and UM Vice President for Research S. Jack Hu signed a memorandum of understanding on Saturday in Shenzhen, China with Frontt Capital Management Ltd., to partner for the facility and support the university’s overall research in Michigan.

“Frontt’s investment in UM people and technology will help advance mobility in a way that we believe will ripple across the globe,” Schlissel said in a statement, noting the potential safety benefits of autonomous and connected vehicles.

The funding will establish a joint research center at UM; assist in construction of a previously announced robotics laboratory and garage at the university — slated to open in 2020; and provide engineering service and consulting fees for UM researchers to advise Frontt on design of an autonomous vehicle test facility in Shenzhen.

Officials expect the investments to be made over a five-year period, but a starting time has not been finalized. A full research agreement between the university and firm is expected to signed by the end of the year. A breakdown of how the $27 million would be split between the projects was not available at this time.

Frontt is focused on developing the intelligent vehicle industry in China, and the test facility will “simulate the country’s unique transportation environment, which includes different road conditions, traffic density, traffic patterns and culture,” according to officials.

“In China, there are more bicyclists and pedestrians, and shorter on-ramps, for example,” Hu said. “UM faculty will be helping to analyze China’s special traffic challenges and scenarios so they can be effectively addressed by the new facility.”

Once the facility in China opens, UM’s industry partners will be able to test their autonomous and connected vehicles in an environment that’s distinct from that of the U.S., Hu said.

In Ann Arbor, the funding will contribute toward construction of the recently approved 140,000-square-foot Robotics Laboratory and a vehicle garage on UM’s North Campus that is planned near Mcity, a 30-acre private autonomous vehicle systems test site.

UM noted that its relationship with Frontt was a result of Gov. Rick Snyder’s effort to strengthen trade relations between Michigan and China. The second-term Republican governor has made several trade visits to China.

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