With $5M Investment, Toyota Is First Auto Co. to Back Mobility Center

As news reports this morning say that Toyota and Mazda are planning to open a new $1.6 billion U.S. manufacturing plant—location to be determined—Toyota is also making moves in Michigan.

This week, the American Center for Mobility (ACM) announced that the Japanese automotive company  has ponied up $5 million to be a founding sponsor of the autonomous vehicle research and development facility located outside of Ann Arbor, MI. Toyota is the first major automaker to join the public-private partnership.

John Maddox, CEO of the ACM, says that in exchange, Toyota will get a seat on the center’s industry advisory board and access to the facility’s testing areas. Its contribution will also go toward construction, programming, and developing safety standards for connected cars.

“Toyota is developing autonomous vehicles in Michigan, and the center will allow them to conduct test scenarios that would be unsafe on public roads,” he explains.

The ACM is the only place of its kind in the country, Maddox says. Set to open to the public on Dec. 1, the center includes a 2.5 mile highway loop complete with bridges, an urban street grid, and collaborative work space.

Maddox says the ACM’s industry advisory board will work with the center’s staff to strategize and execute in three main areas: testing, including methodology and tools; voluntary industry standards, which he calls an “urgent priority”; and workforce education, whether that’s creating new training programs or re-training existing engineers in autonomous vehicle technologies, cybersecurity, or vehicle communications. (Michigan has the largest concentration of automotive R&D professionals and engineers in the country, Maddox says.)

For the workforce training piece, the ACM will create an academic consortium with the state’s universities, community colleges, and training programs to help steer young graduates toward a career in connected car development.

So far, Maddox says the ACM is “well on track” to finish initial construction by opening day. Fundraising, he adds, is ahead of schedule. The center has raised a total of $26 million from private entities and $65 million from the state; its goal is $110 million over the center’s three phases of development.

“We’re further along than we thought we’d be at this point,” Maddox says. “We’re 80 percent there.”

In January, the ACM was designated one of 10 federal proving grounds for autonomous vehicles, beating roughly 50 applicants. Other sites include the Texas AV Proving Grounds Partnership, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the North Carolina Turnpike Authority, and San Diego, CA.

“That is very important—the U.S. needs a coordinated network of facilities for the development of autonomous vehicles and communications,” Maddox says. “And the ACM is the only one with a dedicated 4G cellular network,” thanks to AT&T, another of the center’s partners.

Maddox says the center is actively designing phase two—the urban grid portion—and will break ground on it next spring. The voluntary safety standards program is also underway after the ACM signed agreements with SAE and the Institute of Transportation Engineers to work on the project together.

Like most transportation officials in the state, Maddox is optimistic about the starring role Michigan is likely to play in bringing autonomous vehicles to market. “There is a lot of expertise here, and we’ve passed legislation allowing on-road testing,” he says.

Maddox says there’s “great work” being done around the country in places like Pittsburgh, Boston, and Silicon Valley. But  when it’s all said and done—even if the meat of the technology is developed elsewhere—deployment of autonomous vehicles on any mass scale will almost certainly involve the auto industry and, therefore, Michigan, he says. Maddox is firmly in the camp that feels it will be a collaboration between a big tech company and major automaker that ultimately gets self-driving cars on the road.

“That’s a good marriage between automotive manufacturers and tech companies,” he says. “The real competition is in Europe and Asia.”

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