It’s never a good idea for a region, especially one in Michigan, to be looking in its rearview mirror and see the competition catching up.
That’s how Southeast Michigan was feeling as it was watching Silicon Valley build up its auto IT innovation sector. “We didn’t want to be left behind in automotive technology,” explains Paul Krutko CEO of Ann Arbor SPARK.
So eight years ago Mary Sue Coleman, president of the University of Michigan, took the lead in an economic development scenario, which is somewhat unusual for a university, and formed a national advisory board to ensure that the region retained its reputation for innovation.
Thus Ann Arbor SPARK was formed. Some big players were part of the organization, which is supported by 38 companies and two different counties. Rick Snyder, who is now the Governor of Michigan, is a central figure as is Stephen Forrest, who is vice president of research at the University of Michigan and has over a billion dollars in research funds under his control. The Bank of Ann Arbor has a seat on the board as do Toyota and Ford.
When the need for another iteration of auto testing arose – driverless cars—the group decided to build on its current reputation in the field. That reputation was established in the mid-70s when the EPA first decided to develop emission standards. The University of Michigan was chosen as the testing ground and thus built facilities for that purpose. What followed was a boon to economic development as domestic and global OEMs flocked to the area.
With that model of OEMs followed by a supply chain creating economic growth, the region felt it could make this same case for a test track for driverless cars. There was a perfect site; the abandoned GM plant. Adding fuel to the idea was the fact that when GM was restructured, a number of plants that were no longer necessary were placed under a government clean-up organization, RACER, which had funds allocated to reuse plants to create new employment opportunities. A perfect storm was at hand.
“If you created a public-private open source testing where OEMs and tier suppliers could test connected vehicle technology, wouldn’t that be valuable and create job opportunities?” Krutko asked all of the stakeholders involved. The answer was yes.
Last September a group led by Ann Arbor SPARK that included RACER Trust, Devon Industrial Group, and Walbridge Development, proposed that the former Willow Run Powertrain plant l house a technologically advanced connected vehicle research center.
The center will provide precautionary testing before vehicles are deployed on the road and will be a proving ground for collaborative safety technology demonstrations. It will also serve as a high technology research and development facility that will allow companies to lease space for office and research use, garages, and other amenities, ultimately expanding the region's business incubation and acceleration capabilities around automotive technology.
The announcement was the culmination of a collaboration of many groups and organizations whose ideas were outlined in a whitepaper called “Ahead by a Century: The Future of Automotive Technology.”
The paper made the case for developing a world-class test facility for intellignet transportation systems that would cost $360 million and eventually create 7,800 jobs.
The University of Michigan saw the economic value of the plan to the region and in October of last year approved plans to “design of a unique environment for testing connected and automated vehicles.”
Then in May of last year the Michigan Mobility Transformation Center (MTC) was announced. It is is part of the overall strategy to put a large facility on Willow Run. Demolition has already begun at Willow Run.
MTC will simulate a dynamic urban environment and serve an integral part of developing and implementing an entire system of connected and automated vehicles on the streets of southeastern Michigan by 2021.
Current plans call for the facility be completed by the fall of 2014 at a cost of about $6.5 million.
“Connected and automated vehicles provide a new platform for safety improvements, better traffic movement, emissions reduction, energy conservation, and maximized transportation accessibility,” said Peter Sweatman, director of the U-M Transportation Institute and director of the new center.
"Integrating the most promising approaches to mobility into a coordinated system could reduce motor vehicle fatalities and injuries as well as energy consumption and carbon emissions by as much as a factor of 10," Sweatman added. " We also estimate that freight transportation costs could be cut by a factor of three, and the need for parking could go down by a factor of three."
Launched last spring, the MTC builds on U-M on-road, vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure connected vehicle model deployment in Ann Arbor, with more than 3,000 users. This facility received $25 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation, This project, which includes several industry participants, is providing data to inform future policy decisions by the federal Transportation Department.
Other activities underway in the region also are laying the foundation for the new mobility system. For example, the Michigan Department of Transportation is installing a unique “smart” infrastructure across Southeastern Michigan.
The region is now posed to be a major play in intelligent transportation systems (ITS). It is well on its way of the fulfilling the original plan to provide a need to the ITS industry that would draw investment from OEMs, their supply chain, technology suppliers and entrepreneurs that spring up around the sector. And of course the ultimate goal is to set Michigan apart from growing competition to capture ITS as an economic development catalyst.
“The most exciting prospect is the enormous economic and technological opportunity MTC offers to our region and the U.S. by literally reinventing the automobile more than a century after its first introduction on our nation’s roadways,” Stephen Forrest, vice president for research for University of Michigan.