MTRAC Program Helps Early-Stage Automotive Technology Get to Market

With the era of the autonomous vehicle dawning, the technologies required to develop driverless cars have never been hotter. But before they hit the marketplace, cutting-edge innovations often necessitate a lot of research, and much of that early research is conducted in an academic setting.

The Michigan Translational Research and Commercialization (MTRAC) program for advanced transportation technologies, based at the University of Michigan, is a collaborative effort between state government and universities to bring prototypes and concepts developed in university labs to market. Late last month, MTRAC awarded new funding to seven teams working on the next generation of automotive tech. (More on the projects below.)

Denise Graves, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation’s (MEDC) university relations director, oversees MTRAC for the state. She says the advanced transportation program, in place at U-M since 2012, has so far drawn 47 project proposals. Seventeen of the projects were funded by MTRAC, generating a total of nearly $8 million in follow-on funding. (The program was originally open only to U-M researchers and projects. In February, it opened to anyone from Michigan’s institutions of higher education, nonprofit research centers, and hospital systems.)

“All of it is very early-stage technology—it’s more of a vetting process,” Graves explains. The funding is based on what the research team presents to the state’s oversight body, consisting of university officials, venture capitalists, and industry representatives. Some projects are awarded $100,000, and some receive $50,000 with the opportunity to unlock another $50,000 if certain milestones are met.

U-M is one of four universities with an MTRAC program, along with Michigan State University, Michigan Technical University, and Wayne State University. Each institution focuses on different industry sectors, including agricultural technology, applied materials, and life sciences.

In total, the MEDC says MTRAC programs have so far funded 138 projects statewide, helped develop 19 startup companies, created 61 jobs, scored $76.4 million in additional funding, and licensed technology to 12 industry partners.

“Across all the MTRAC programs, the projects keep getting better,” Graves says, partially crediting I-Corps and other initiatives that train researchers and university faculty to be more entrepreneurial. “Not all projects will become startups, and that’s OK—there might be a pivot or a determination that it doesn’t make sense to go forward,” which can be just as valuable.

Here’s a bit more on the projects receiving MTRAC funding:

High-frequency radar for autonomous vehicle applications (U-M, $100,000): Eric Petersen, who oversees U-M’s involvement in MTRAC programs, says that self-driving cars use light and radio waves to “see.” This project involves a radar system with “superior detection, wide-scanning range, and minimal size, weight, and power consumption.”

High-performance coating for engine cylinder bores (MSU, $100,000): Petersen says this project involves a process to deposit a diamond-like coating onto the inner surfaces of cylinder bores, reducing friction and increasing fuel efficiency.

Multi-material 3D printing (U-M, $100,000): According to Petersen, this project proposes to “print” the car’s electrical connections with conductive materials, a process that is meant to be quicker and cheaper than traditional manufacturing.

Variable coupling wireless power transfer system (U-M, $100,000): The current standard is to charge electrified vehicles by plugging them in, Petersen says. This wireless system could be installed in a garage or roadway to charge vehicles, he says. He also envisions other applications, including factory robots that could charge by stopping and waiting in one spot.

Your Own Planner (U-M, $100,000): There are plenty of travel sites on the Web, Petersen points out, but none that can elegantly handle complicated, multi-destination trips as well as Your Own Planner. “The flight and car rental is not the whole story,” he adds. Users can also tell Your Own Planner’s search engine where they’re going and what they like to do, and the site can recommend nearby places of interest to check out. This project was created by a database researcher who experienced frustrations when booking travel, Petersen says, so he decided to try and do something about it.

Enhanced object recognition LIDARs for robotics ($50,000, U-M): This project is designed to provide fast, accurate object detection that complements the distance-ranging capabilities of LIDAR, which uses light waves to produce a picture of the surrounding environment.

Sensor fusion and cognitive computing solution for autonomous driving ($50,000, U-M): Autonomous cars need to process a lot of information in real time in order to keep passengers safe, Petersen says. This project takes information from cameras, radars, and LIDARs and compresses it to make it more manageable. “It allows cars to have computers instead of supercomputers,” he adds.

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