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In the midst of heightened debate over the safety of autonomous vehicles on public roads, the largest real-world closed test facility in the U.S. for self-driving cars celebrated its opening in Michigan.
The American Center for Mobility(ACM)has been transforming a 500-acre former bomber plant site to a testing facility for the use of the auto industry as it continues to develop technology to replace a human at the wheel.
The development of the site comes as the industry grapples with safety issues in the wake of tragic accidents involving Tesla vehicles in Autopilot mode and the recent death of a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona, after being hit by an Uber autonomous vehicle.
The tragedies are a clear indication the technology is still being developed and is not quite ready yet, said John Maddox , president and CEO of the American Center for Mobility, which is a non-profit and private-public entity that is supported by automakers, suppliers, government, and academia. The newest partner is Microsoft which brings its secure cloud-based platform for the data gathered by the vehicles which must be stored, analyzed, and shared. It is being called the first partnership between a test facility and a full-scale cloud provider.
Companies used to developing vehicles know you can’t rush this technology, Maddox said.
ACM sits on the defunct Willow Run airport in Ypsilanti, Michigan, and utilizes a concrete slab that was once the floor of the mile-long assembly plant that Henry Ford used to make B-24 Liberator bombers and was considered the home of the Arsenal of Democracy during WWII as well as Rosie the Riveter.
Michigan bought the site in November 2016 for $1.2 million and leased it to the ACM for a testing facility. What makes it so valuable is its ability to do highway testing complete with ramps and exits and overpasses and a tunnel.
The Michigan Department of Transportation donated the westbound lanes of nearby Highway 12, retiring it from the U.S. highway system. The eastbound lane became a two-lane public road. There is fencing with screens to provide a degree of confidentiality for the test vehicles and because it is on the site of a former airport, drones are prohibited within a five-mile radius.
It means driverless cars can hit highway posted speeds of 65 mphand experience ramps, two triple-decker overpasses, and a 700-foot curved tunnel that tests onboard data systems when a vehicle is cut off from a satellite system to read its surroundings. The facility also exposes vehicles to potholes, winter driving conditions, construction cones, railroad tracks, and 40-mph and 50-mph curves.
And it is expected to help set industry standards for autonomous driving as well as for test facilities, Maddox said.
The first phase of development was completed in December, allowing vehicles to begin testing. Among those conducting tests is Visteon, one of the founding companies. A 2017 Lincoln MKZ has been outfitted with the supplier’s new Drivecore hardware computing platform that takes over all driving functions. Customers can choose how much computing power they wish. Drivecore Small would provide level two autonomy or essentially driver-assist features. Drivecore Medium would be levels 3 or 4 and Drivecore Large assumes all functions. The platform relies on lidar, radar, and cameras for redundancy and can accommodate sensors from any supplier as well as outside algorithms. It is not in production yet but Visteon hopes the system will be on the road in 2020 as it works with a number of interested automakers.
The next phase of site development is completing a six-lane intersection with a further six lanes, the kind of scenario included in the top 40 most frequent crash sites as identified by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. It should be ready in July.
By the time the third phase is complete in late 2019 there will be an urban portion with residential streets, parking garages, cars backing out of driveways, pedestrians, bike lanes, traffic circles, and roundabouts. Plans also call for rural area testing.
The beauty of the Michigan facility is the ability to test vehicles in all seasons and under all conditions. The howling wind, swirling snow, and frigid temperatures during the grand opening underscored the point as guests shivered in their seats in a tent set up for the event.
The Center complements Mcity, a 32-acre mock city on the campus of the University of Michigan, only 13 miles from the American Center for Mobility site. Mcity Deputy Director Carrie Morton said the smaller Mcity is good for testing technology in the early stages of its research and development and then it can switch to ACM for high-speed testing as development continues.
“We are the place that put the world on wheels,” said Michigan Governor Rick Snyder. This facility is designed to put the world on “smart wheels.”
Other countries have also pursued facilities similar to the ones in Michigan, including Sweden, Germany, the U.K., and Korea. And there are other test sites in the U.S. but not with full highway capability.
The American Center for Mobility team posing with a pedestrian dummy