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Michigan Vies to Be Autonomous Vehicles Capital

Autonomous vehicles (AVs) are the future, and the state of Michigan is vying to be the global hub for self-driving and connected cars.

The state’s reinvention comes more than a century after Henry Ford installed the moving assembly line in his Detroit plants, introduced the $5-per-day wage and launched the affordable Model T. These events led to Michigan’s emergence as the world’s automotive center.

The Michigan legislature recently introduced bills permitting the sale of self-driving cars and allowing them to operate on public roads. Governor Rick Snyder is launching a campaign to promote Michigan as the forerunner in emerging automotive technologies. Snyder noted that his state had put the world on wheels in the first place, and it’s uniquely positioned to be a leader in mobility with its 375 automotive research centers, the University of Michigan and other educational institutes. The state also has the highest concentration of industrial and mechanical engineers in the country.

Michigan: Connected/Autonomous Vehicle Testing Hub

Michigan is already home to one permanent testing site for AVs, with another slated to open in the near future.

The first facility, opened in 2015 by the University of Michigan, is called Mcity. It’s a 32-acre site in Ann Arbor that claims to be the world’s first controlled environment to specifically test the potential of connected and automated vehicle technologies that will bring driverless cars to the mass market.

The facility resembles a movie set, an urban-suburban environment complete with roads, intersections, traffic signs and signals, sidewalks, streetlights and construction obstacles. Streets are even lined with building facades. Funded through a public-private partnership of industry, government and academia, Mcity is designed to support robust and repeatable testing of new technologies before they make their way to public streets and highways.

Construction begins next year on a second, much larger facility, the American Center for Mobility. Located on the 335-acre Willow Run site in Ypsilanti, Michigan, the plant was originally built by Henry Ford and turned out B-24 bombers during World War II. The mobility center is expected to be operational in 2018 and will develop, test and possibly certify connected and autonomous vehicles.

General Motors, Ford and Toyota, as well as German automotive supplier Robert Bosch GmbH, have expressed interest in supporting the facility. Estimated to cost $80 million by the time it’s complete, the facility will receive state and possibly federal funding, while public and private funds are also being sought. The center’s CEO John Maddox, who worked for Ford and Volkswagen and was head of vehicle safety research at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said the facility will be used by automakers and their top-tier suppliers but also by companies involved with connected vehicles, such as cellphone providers and traffic signal and service providers. He also envisions it being used by educators, lawyers and urban planners.

Much of the infrastructure is already in place from the plant’s days of car and aircraft production, including concrete and asphalt roads and highways for high-speed testing, as well as train tracks and highway overpasses. The mobility center will not compete with Mcity; rather, it will provide even more resources for the next steps in AV development.

The goal is to ensure that the U.S. can compete with organizations in Europe and Asia that are also speeding toward leadership in automated and connected vehicles, Maddox said.

Google: Michigan Partnerships and Self-Driving Development Center

Recently, Google announced that it would open a self-driving development center near Detroit. The tech giant is partnering with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles to produce self-driving Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans by the end of 2016. Google, which has said that it will work with other automakers in addition to Fiat Chrysler, is rumored to be working on a deal with Ford, as well.

Google teams in Detroit have already been working on a self-driving car with the help of local suppliers. Roush Enterprises, an engineering and specialty manufacturing company known for its racing prowess and custom-made Ford Mustangs, has been building Google’s tiny, podlike self-driving prototypes. Continental Automotive Systems and Robert Bosch GmbH, both suppliers with U.S. headquarters in the Detroit area, are supplying parts and systems to Google.

It’s worth pointing out that Google has Michigan roots. Co-founder Larry Page was born and raised in East Lansing and attended the University of Michigan. And John Krafcik, who now heads Google’s autonomous car program, worked at Ford long before he headed to Hyundai.

While Google develops its self-driving car, GM and Ford are working on their own autonomous and connected vehicles. GM is constructing a facility at its Warren, Michigan, tech center that will focus exclusively on autonomous, connected and electrified vehicles. Meanwhile, Ford announced that it is tripling its fleet of autonomous Ford Fusion Hybrid vehicles and is testing them in urban and suburban environments.

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