American Center for Mobility Officially Opens, Announces 2018 Plans

There were times when American Center for Mobility (ACM) CEO John Maddox wasn’t sure it would happen on time, but last week, the first phase of the Ypsilanti Township, MI-based test bed officially opened on schedule after more than a year of construction. Two ACM members, Visteon and Toyota, also announced they would begin autonomous vehicle testing at the center.

“It was a long sprint,” Maddox says of 2017. “Our basic concept has been validated, and we’re quite excited for 2018.”

The ACM, a public-private entity developing and testing mobility technologies, is located on a 500-acre industrial parcel that, in the past, was home to a GM plant and a factory that built B-24 bombers during World War II. The ACM is also a federally designated proving ground for driverless cars.

The center is meant to replicate real-world driving conditions in four-season weather, and the first phase of the center’s construction includes a 2.5-mile, bidirectional loop; a 700-foot curved tunnel; two double overpasses; bridges; on and off ramps; intersections; and roundabouts.

The heavy snow that fell on Dec. 11 was the perfect start to Visteon’s project, which involves testing the implementation of autonomous highway functionality for its DriveCore platform in challenging conditions. Maddox says Visteon has a number of technologies it plans to test, including autonomous driving algorithms, vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure technology, sensor technology, and security protocols.

Less is known about what Toyota will be working on, and Maddox declined to reveal details, citing the need for confidentiality in the competitive auto industry.

The ACM is also wrapping up construction on what it calls “short-term garages,” which are test spaces that mobility  companies can rent for up to one month. Each garage is equipped with high-speed Internet from partner AT&T and a secure portal, allowing testers to import their own proprietary data and incorporate it into their tests. Secrecy is maintained, Maddox says, by providing “segregated data streams” for individual users.

“We’re adding a significant data and cloud partner in 2018,” Maddox says, which will add further capabilities to the data garages. In July, the center will open long-term garages—similar spaces that can be rented for up to one year.

“There’s a real demand for longer-term space,” he notes. “Even if the company is based 10 miles away, they still want a long-term test location and they don’t want to haul equipment back and forth. The high-speed data connection alone is quite a draw.”

Other construction slated for next year: A large urban surface street—six lanes by six lanes—complete with left-turn lanes, traffic signals, and view-occluding signage for testing difficult traffic scenarios, as well as a second urban area that Maddox calls ACM’s “piece de resistance.” This portion of phase two construction will contain “critical scenarios, conditions, and geometries” from 22 American cities, where testers can re-create crashes and the cities’ most challenging areas in which to drive.

“We’re breaking a bit of new ground with these creative test environments,” Maddox says, adding that many of the ACM’s features are the first of their kind in the world. “I’m not aware of anyone else doing it on a large scale like this. Other sites around the U.S. are looking to build similar pieces, but nothing this complete.”

So far, the ACM is not open to the public, but Maddox says plans are underway for public tours to begin in the second half of 2018.

“We definitely want to be able to host the public—it’s critical to educate people on what an autonomous vehicle is and isn’t, and what it can and can’t do,” he says. The public education piece will begin in earnest after the facility’s technology park is built, likely by the end of 2019, he adds.

Describing the technology park as the ACM’s public face, Maddox imagines it as a place for convening organizations and companies interested in self-driving cars, complete with 250,000 square feet of offices, labs, and testing space. A headquarters building would add approximately another 50,000 square feet to the technology park, he says, and the park will be situated in a way that overlooks the entire facility. Funding for the ACM comes from its private-sector partners as well as the state.

Maddox says the ACM will take a proactive role in K-12 STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education and workforce development initiatives in order to help cultivate the talent needed to build driverless cars, as well as retrain workers displaced by automation.

In January, representatives from the ACM will head to Washington, DC, to announce the results of a study done by a consortium of universities that focused on worker displacement, workforce training, and education.

“We intend to get down to quantifiable future training needs and create those programs,” Maddox says. “It’s quite urgent, frankly, because policymakers are thinking about these things but nobody has any data. We intend to provide some of that data and thought leadership.”

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