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Test tracks for disruptive technologies

Test tracks for disruptive technologies

More than half the world’s population lives in towns and cities. By 2040, two in three people are expected to live in urban environments. In the process we are changing the way we live, travel and use services.

The auto industry is faced with the challenge of remaining relevant and profitable in a society which is transitioning from being ownership-centric society to one of a sharing rides, offices and even homes.

In order to help the motor industry to reinvent itself test tracks have taken on a whole new form in Michigan. The state has positioned itself as a leader in the development of technologies that are disrupting the automotive status quo. At the Michigan test facilities the focus turns from speed, handling and endurance to how people, vehicles and the rest of the urban and suburban environment will interact. The tracks are part of the “Planet M” public-private partnership which includes over 300 R&D companies and what is claimed to be “the nation’s highest concentration of engineers”.

This year Michigan will be the only state in the United States with two permanent and purpose-built autonomous vehicle testing sites.


Working with the Michigan Department of Transportation, University of Michigan (U-M) researchers have designed Mcity, a 32 acre test facility for evaluating the capabilities of connected and automated vehicles and systems. Opened in 2015 at the university’s North Campus Research Complex, the site simulates urban and suburban environments and is in high demand. 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.

American Center for Mobility

The United States Department of Transportation (USDOT) has designated the American Center for Mobility at Willow Run as one of the first national proving grounds in the country.

“Our global center for testing, education and product development for connected and automated vehicles (CAV) and future mobility fits seamlessly with the USDOT’s vision and we are honored to have been selected,” said John Maddox, President and CEO of the American Center for Mobility (ACM) in a media release.

“The state of Michigan has already established a robust connected vehicle ecosystem by bringing manufacturers, researchers, government officials and other stakeholders together – and ACM will play a central role in this continuing partnership,” said Gov. Rick Snyder. Located on 530-plus acres at the famous Willow Run site, the Center will offer access to a range of driving environments and infrastructure including a 2.5-mile highway loop, a 700-foot curved tunnel, two double overpasses, intersections, roundabouts, and a dedicated cellular LTE network provided by AT&T.

In addition the center’s location supports experimentation in varying weather conditions due to Michigan’s dynamic climate. It is close to the University of Michigan’s Mcity, which was designed for early-stage CAV research and teaching. With complementary but varied programs, the organizations can share best practices to the benefit of both facilities. The American Center for Mobility is a joint initiative with the State of Michigan founded in partnership with the Michigan Department of Transportation, the Michigan Economic Development Corp., the University of Michigan, Business Leaders for Michigan and Ann Arbor SPARK.

Automotive Industries (AI) asked Matt Gibb, Deputy County Executive, Oakland County, what or where is “Planet M”.

Gibb: Planet M is in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It’s a test track for autonomous vehicles

AI: Why the focus on the connected vehicle?

Gibb: It’s a natural location for the US connected mobility industry to develop. The Automotive Industry is already here in Southeast Michigan. Most of the R&D is done in Oakland County, Michigan. We are home to over 70 of the top 100 Global Automotive TIER 1 suppliers. In addition we have the electronics, Information Technology, sensor technology and the big data companies here already. Google’s Waymo R&D Center is in Oakland County, Uber’s R&D Center is in Oakland County, Several navigation technology companies are already here too, such as NNG and TomTom. In short, we have all the elements already – including the engineering force needed to build this industry.

AI: Why should companies be investing in Michigan?

Gibb: The engineering talent ecosystem is here and growing; the simpler and lower tax structure compared to other states; access to the automotive industry (domestic and transplants). Their North American headquarters and R&D ers are all in Southeast Michigan.

AI: Is this an exclusive Michigan initiative?

Gibb: No, but Michigan is far ahead of any other state in the USA in the assets that we already have here in the connected mobility space.

AI: How can “outsiders” make use of the facilities and expertise?

Gibb: We can help them. They can contact us at and we can help them connect to all the assets in Michigan and plug right into our Nation’s Largest Mobility Industry

AI: When will Michigan allow the vehicles which have been tested in the simulated environments onto its roads?

Gibb: It’s already allowed. Michigan was the first state in the nation to pass the most progressive laws allowing testing of autonomous vehicles on its roads – and it’s already happening in Oakland County and throughout the state. Autonomous passenger cars, military and commercial trucks are all being testing today right here in our community! This is the place to be!

AI: What about the skills needed for this brave new world?

Gibb: Oakland County was the first in the Nation to identify the skills needed for this future workforce. We surveyed this industry and presented the results to the educational institutions throughout Michigan (K-12, community colleges and universities). We are the first to identify a specialized engineer for this autonomous/connected mobility industry. It’s the “Connected Systems Engineer”. You can see the results of the survey here:

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Fri. July 19th, 2024

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