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State-wide focus on auto industry puts Michigan in pole position

New facility for real-life simulation of autonomous driving
State-wide focus on auto industry puts Michigan in pole position


Michigan, which is the historic center of the United States automotive industry, is now focusing on taking the global lead in the development of autonomous vehicles.

Three West Coast companies working on driverless vehicle technologies are now working out of TechLab at MCity, which is part of the University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus research complex. Operated by the U-M Mobility Transformation Center, MCity is the world’s first controlled environment specifically designed to test the potential of connected and automated vehicle technologies. It includes approximately five lane-miles of roads with intersections, traffic signs and signals sidewalks, benches, simulated buildings, street lights, and obstacles such as construction barriers.

“We are on the cusp of a transformation of mobility on a scale we haven’t seen since the introduction of the automobile a century ago,” says Peter Sweatman Founding Director, U-M Mobility Transformation Center. In February 2016, CFE launched the pilot of TechLab with Zendrive, a Bay Area startup founded by Google and Facebook veterans. The company is back at TechLab to accelerate the development of technology that uses a driver’s smartphone to measure actions such as acceleration, braking, swerving and phone use. Zendrive has secured US$13.5 million in funding to improve the technology and expand its team. They are being joined by PolySync, which is refining an operating system that turns algorithms, sensors and actuators into plug and play applications, allowing developers to focus less on coding and more on user experience.

“Automated driving exists at this really interesting intersection of robotics, cars and computers,” said PolySync co-founder and CEO Josh Hartung. “The problems we are seeing there are quite literally the first of their kind. TechLab is one of the pioneering programs preparing an entirely new kind of engineer to build a future few of us can yet imagine.”

Adding to the mix is Civil Maps, which is developing 3D mapping technology to help fully autonomous vehicles to drive anywhere smoothly and safely. The company has raised US$6.6 million in a seed funding round led by Motus Ventures.

Automotive Industries (AI) asked Brian Calley, Lieutenant Governor of the State of Michigan, what the state is doing to encourage partnership and investment in the auto industry.

Calley: Michigan is home to the automotive industry, and continues to lead the way in the evolution of vehicle and transportation technologies. The entire state, and the auto industry, are transforming into a global center for mobility.

AI: What is Planet M?

Calley: The center will serve as a catalyst for economic growth and will attract a range of engineering talent that will further distinguish Michigan as the home for automotive innovation. Planet M represents the collective mobility efforts across the state around the technologies and services that enable people and goods to be transported. The project is a multi-layered initiative among the Michigan Strategic Fund, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, the Michigan Department of Transportation, the MEDC, and many other state and local partners.

At the forefront of Michigan’s efforts is the Willow Run American Center for Mobility (ACM). It is a 335-acre site which will provide additional testing and validation resources for the industry, including and interaction with rail and air transport. The facility will be guided and governed by industry partners and stakeholders. Funding sources are anticipated to include federal, state and private funds.

AI: How is Michigan helping to create a driverless future?

Calley: In addition to ACM, Michigan has several projects for autonomous and connected vehicle testing.

  • Michigan is one of 16 states that allow testing of fully autonomous vehicles and offers an all-weather environment
  • Michigan is home to the largest deployment of freeway and surface street V2I technology in the United States. Eventually, 120 miles of southeastern Michigan roadway called the transportation triangle will become a vehicle-to-infrastructure communications technology-enabled corridor.
  • Michigan schools have programs to focus on automotive technology and design, such as the K-12 program Square One, community college programs like Washtenaw Community College and university programs at schools like The University of Michigan and Wayne State
  • The American Center for Mobility will complement current testing capabilities at MCity. It will be home to two permanent and purpose-built autonomous vehicle testing sites. Nowhere else in the U.S. has resources like these facilities.

AI: What are some of the incentives the state offers high-tech companies?

Calley: MEDC’s Entrepreneur and Innovation initiative establishes Michigan as the place to create and grow a business by providing high-tech start-up companies with access to a variety of critical resources, such as funding and expert counsel, from ideation to maturation. The MEDC team oversees the state’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, including Michigan’s 17 SmartZones featuring technology business accelerators that provide essential services to the start-up community. The Entrepreneur and Innovation initiative provides continued support for proven programs that have a high return on investment in terms of job creation and/or the fiscus.

Automotive Industries then asked Matt Gibb, Deputy County Executive, Oakland County, Michigan, how MCity has helped to attract high-tech companies to Michigan.

Gibb: MCity is the first research based, open access testing facility in North America and has allowed industry experts to advance problem solving and product development in manner never before experienced. Global companies seeking to expand their own product platform are drawn to this region with a realistic and strong desire to be a part of the “in” crowd. MCity exemplifies the importance of blending research, testing and deployment through public private partnerships and as companies see the advantages they a naturally drawn to become a part of the network.

AI: What role do institutions such as the University of Michigan, play in boosting the profile of the state?

Gibb: The University has recently been recognized as the top public university in the U.S. and having such an institution right on our backyard is a benefit not only for our students, but for our corporate climate. Linking the strength of research, academics and culture builds important credibility. Michigan has a history of university-based innovation: Kettering continues to lead in engineering and automotive technologies, Lawrence Tech in materials science, Wayne State in medicine, Oakland in stem cell and energy incubation. High profile and recognized institutions provide confidence that Michigan can produce and retain the talent necessary for growth and workforce is where we generally outperform nearly every other state in the U.S.

AI: What are some of the future strategies being adopted by the Michigan authorities to boost the state’s reputation as a global automotive hub?

Gibb: Michigan has recently launched “planetM” a collaborative initiative focusing on mobility and highlighting the fact that Michigan is home to more than 70% of the world’s research in automotive technologies. Oakland County, through its connected vehicle task force, is implementing the nation’s first public-private based deployment strategy and revenue models for sustainability in infrastructure design and operation. The state has funded and is building the American Center for Mobility, a nearly 400-acre validation facility for future vehicle technologies. These efforts, and many more, reflect the State’s focus on sustaining automotive as a core industry base, and promoting and assisting its evolution into coordinated and shared mobility.

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