Robotic car test center aims to create toughest trials

Ian Thibodeau
The Detroit News

Ypsilanti — Companies started testing robotic cars less than a month ago here at the American Center for Mobility, and John Maddox, the center’s president and CEO, already has his crews prepping for new construction.

The 500-acre driverless-car proving ground here on the site of the historic Willow Run bomber plant will change constantly during its lifetime. Maddox and his team plan to have a mock city built by December that’s bigger than the University of Michigan’s Mcity autonomous test facility not far away.

With the first phase of construction finished this past December, the American Center for Mobility has a six-lane highway, full-size interchange loop, a tri-level intersection, a tunnel in which officials can control the light and weather, and a series asphalt and concrete roads built for 50- to 65-mph speeds.

Phase one is meant to provide spaces to test highway-driving scenarios, including entering and exiting a freeway. Phase two, which starts construction in April, will build an urban intersection by July, followed by a series of mock building facades and other urban infrastructure by December.

Phase three will construct simulated rural and residential areas so automakers can test delivery services in 2019. There will also be what Maddox called a “user-defined area,” which will be a sort of sandbox environment that automakers and technology companies can use to create ultra-specific test scenarios.

Maddox is building to meet demand. Several automakers and technology companies are developing fully autonomous vehicles to launch on public roads within the decade. Other companies are developing hardware and software they hope to sell to carmakers that aren’t building everything in-house.

All of those entities need a place to test off of public roads, Maddox said.

“You need a controlled environment,” he said, adding that the American Center for Mobility allows automakers to replicate a scenario hundreds of times, something that’s impossible outside of the facility.

The center sits on the site of the bomber plant Henry Ford built during World War II that came to symbolize the “Arsenal of Democracy.” A public-private partnership, the center was designated by the U.S. Department of Transportation a year ago as one of 10 proving grounds for developing and testing self-driving cars.

The Michigan Strategic Fund approved $15 million in state funding in April for the center. The state of Michigan had previously pledged $20 million. Construction on the first phase of the American Center for Mobility began in May.

Maddox has said the American Center for Mobility will be constantly expanded. New features will open in “stages” through December 2019. To date, roughly $110 million has been secured for the first two phases of construction.

Subaru of America recently joined a growing list of contributors to the site. The Japanese carmaker will invest $2 million in the site. AT&T, Visteon Corp., Toyota Motor North America, Ford Motor Co. and Hyundai America Technical Center Inc. are founder-level investors in the center.

On a frigid morning in January, Visteon tested lane-keeping technology and a few other systems on the center’s track. The vehicle’s vision system — a series of lidar, radar, cameras and sensors — had a tough job.

Engineers were using a white Lincoln MKZ test-mule to test the visioning systems on a stretch of road leading to a dark tunnel at the facility. The early-morning sunlight created a harsh glare on the asphalt that was wet from melting ice and snow.

Contrasted against the tunnel entrance, the lighting would have made driving difficult for a human driver. That’s perfect for robotic cars, Maddox said.

“We’re designing for a worst-case scenario for an autonomous vehicle,” he said.

And once automakers figure out how to safely navigate all of those worst-case scenarios, he expects the center to evolve into a proving ground. The American Center for Mobility is built for longevity.

Said Maddox: “As the technology transitions, we will do the same.”

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau