Written by Don Sherman

What"s the solution for significantly reducing highway fatalities and injuries? The consensus is to unscrew the nut behind the wheel." But to achieve that goal, as well as to expand mobility options for all, engineers must first perfect autonomous-and-connected (A/C) vehicles. The necessary sensors, servos, and software are under development and millions of test miles have been logged, but only so much can be learned on public roads. Realizing this, John Maddox, a former Ford, NHTSA, and University of Michigan engineer, had a brainstorm: Why not transform a major pillar of America"s industrial past into a proving ground for developing the vehicular future? Like most brilliant ideas, this one was years in the making. Maddox notes, "After I failed to get funding for a full-scale facility at the government"s Vehicle Research Test Center in Ohio, I revived the idea at the University of Michigan. The resulting Mcity [urban- and suburban-test complex in Ann Arbor] is essentially a prototype of what I had in mind." Then in 2014, the non-profit business accelerator Ann Arbor SPARK, other individuals, and Maddox concurred that the former GM Willow Run plant site in nearby Ypsilanti offered tremendous proving-grounds potential. "We stirred university and state interest" for months, Maddox recalled. On Christmas Eve 2015, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder appointed him president and CEO of an ambitious start-up: the American Center for Mobility. Currently under construction and scheduled to open for business December 2017, ACM"s 500-acre site is an order-of-magnitude larger than Mcity and three orders greater in testing potential. This $100-million facility is where government, industry, and education experts will convene to collaboratively develop A/C vehicles and their regulatory guidelines and to further the science of driverless cars. With 70% of the auto industry"s R&D and 63 of the top 100 North American suppliers headquartered in Michigan, this new proving ground is exactly what the A/C doctor ordered. ACM is also one of the most ambitious recycling efforts in U.S. history. The Ford Motor Co. built the Willow Run factory in 1941 to construct B-24 bombers for World War II. In 1953, GM purchased the 4.5 million ft2 complex and produced 82 million automatic transmissions there over six decades. Two years after GM"s 2009 bankruptcy, the federal government"s RACER (Revitalizing Auto Communities Environmental Response) trust assumed responsibility for Willow Run, commencing a two-year demolition of the old factory in 2013. Negotiations with over 20 state, county, and township agencies led to the site"s purchase and the creation of the Willow Run Arsenal of Democracy Landholdings Limited Partnership. Following $64.5 million in state grants and loans supplemented by another $30-million of private sponsorship, the ACM was issued a property lease as a non-profit operations and development organization in 2016. Recycling brownfield sites always includes surprises. In this instance, millions of gallons of industrial solvent, oil, and chemical contaminants were discovered beneath the old factory"s concrete floor. When the $36 million available from the RACER trust was deemed insufficient to remove the floor and the pollution, an alternative strategy was devised: careful monitoring and appropriate treatment of the liquids gathered in new storm, ground, and waste water systems. The old 2 to 3-feet-thick (.6-.9 m) floor was left in place to cap the contaminants and to serve as a secure footing for ACM"s new test tracks. A wealth of test situations Even though the first 2.4-mile (3.8 km), five-lane track doesn"t open until December, ACM"s CTO Andrew Smart believes that this facility already occupies pole position among the ten US organizations recognized by the U.S. Dept. of Transportation for A/C testing. "While others focus on academic research and simulation, we"ll go beyond with real world environments supporting validation to production technology readiness levels," Smart explains. "We"ll offer the hundreds of thousands of test situations required to validate autonomous technologies in a low-risk environment." ACM"s business model is "pay per use," he said. Following proper driver or operator permitting, customers automakers, suppliers, and other organizations involved with mobility-related projects can conduct their own tests or rely on ACM"s experts. "Access to our test sites can be exclusive, on a shared basis, or with multiple customers in collaboration," Smart noted. When the first four construction phases are finished by 2019, ACM will offer a wealth of test situations. The facility includes dozens of multi-lane intersections and traffic circle combinations. There are two tri-level overpasses, a 700-ft (213-m) curved tunnel, blind corners, alleys, winding suburban roads, urban canyons (city streets surrounded by tall buildings) and residential streets. Add to that stretches of grooved pavement, variations in ambient light and a multitude of pavement markings. Mix in Michigan"s variable weather and the result is an unmatched recipe for A/C vehicle and systems testing. ACM"s support infrastructure offers 5G connectivity, electric-vehicle charging and workshop space. An autonomous shuttle for ferrying users about the campus will be pressed into service for testing when needed. Smart adds: "We"ll also be able to input simulation models virtual cyclists, pedestrians, vehicular traffic, practically anything imaginable to gauge a test vehicle"s ability to sense, analyze, and react to the countless situations encountered in real-world driving." Evoking what he calls "the spirit of "42," Smart believes what ACM has achieved in 18 months of parallel design and construction compares favorably to the original bomber plant project. If the first Willow Run was the foremost weapon in America"s Arsenal of Democracy, the new one could be our most strategic tool for developing autonomous and connected vehicles.   Don Sherman served two stints as Car and Driver"s Technical Director, during which he helped evolve and expand testing operations. Don holds engineering degrees from the Universities of Iowa and Michigan and is a long-time SAE member.

Date written: 18-Oct-2017 01:08 EDT

More of this article on the SAE International Website

ID: 9608