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Kettering unveils autonomous car research center

Michael Martinez
The Detroit News

Flint — Kettering University on Monday unveiled a new research center to test autonomous and connected car technologies. Officials liken the new test center to Ann Arbor’s MCity or the proposed site at Willow Run.

Michigan Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, Flint Mayor Karen Weaver and other dignitaries attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony to officially open the university’s GM Mobility Research Center. The Detroit automaker’s GM Foundation donated $2 million for the site, which includes a 3.25-acre test pad and outdoor lab space to test and develop driverless car systems.

The university next spring will begin construction on the second phase of the site, which will add a low-speed road course as well as a research annex and garage for automotive bays, conference rooms and indoor lab space. The center uses about 20 acres of previously abandoned property that was once the Chevy in the Hole plant site in Flint.

“This facility will be a magnet attracting companies to Michigan and from around the U.S. to come to Flint and do research,” Kettering University President Robert K. McMahan said. “Flint, the place where the automotive industry was founded, is now a place where the future of that industry and the mobility technologies of the future are being created.”

The center’s test pad was built to racing specification, and includes professional lighting and the capability for testing at night. The site is unique, officials say, because it features Kettering’s own private 4G LTE cellular network, which operates at 10 times the data speed of current cellular networks to allow for testing of vehicle-to-vehicle or vehicle-to-infrastructure communications.

Kettering’s mobility center will be available for students and faculty as well as automakers and suppliers. Delphi Automotive PLC, with offices in Troy, plans to utilize the site, according to Mary Gustanski, the supplier’s vice president of engineering and program management.

“It’s really targeted toward research and development,” she said. “Delphi has many co-op students and employees that are graduates of Kettering. We’ll continue to be a strong company partner.”

Delphi was at the site Monday showcasing its cylinder deactivation technology, which improves fuel economy by using only the minimum number of cylinders necessary, whether cruising on the highway or on a crowded city street.

Calley noted that work that will be done there that could one day allow the disabled or elderly to drive with help from computer systems and sensors.

“Kettering University and Flint, Michigan, will literally change the world for everybody and will open up the world for the first time for people with disabilities that today have to rely on somebody else,” he said. “This is important, groundbreaking work.”

The state is battling regions like California’s Silicon Valley to position itself as the leader in autonomous car research. Those efforts have produced the MCity test site, a proposed site at the former Willow Run bomber plant and a marketing initiative called Planet M.

Glenn Stevens, executive director of MichAuto, said the new Kettering test site is as important as MCity and other similar sites and will help Michigan remain ahead of its competition.

“This facility enables us to have another core key project area for research to be done,” he said. “It’s a place for the students to connect with the technology, it’s a place for the automotive and supplier community to do testing, and it’s also an economic development tool. It’s really good for the city of Flint and the region.”

Phase II of the project is expected to be done in 2017. Kettering recently received a $1.9 million grant from the United States Economic Development Administration to make that happen.

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