If one of the big weaknesses of autonomous vehicles is their ability to navigate in the snow, consider this a trial by fire. The American Center for Mobility says it has opened its $110 million driverless car testing facility on the site of a former General Motors assembly plant in Michigan, with Toyota and auto supplier Visteon the first to begin testing this week.
The ACM proving ground is a 500-acre site at historic Willow Run in Ypsilanti Township, near Ann Arbor. It's one of 10 sites designated by the U.S. Department of Transportation as pilot proving ground sites to test AV technologies. It features a variety of simulated environments to test driverless cars, including a 2.5-mile highway loop, two double overpasses, intersections, roundabouts and a 700-foot curved tunnel. It also opens just as the region experiences a series of snowstorms and the first frigid temperatures of the season.
That ability to test autonomous vehicles in a wide variety of weather conditions is important, as autonomous vehicle sensors have struggled to handle cold, wet and snowy conditions. Google parent Alphabet in October said its Waymo division was expanding its winter testing operations to Michigan, making it the sixth state where it's testing its driverless car systems. In a Medium blog post, Waymo CEO John Krafcik wrote that "This type of testing will give us the opportunity to assess the way our sensors perform in wet, cold conditions. And it will also build on the advanced driving skills we've developed over the last eight years by teaching our cars how to handle things like skidding on icy, unplowed roads." Waymo also opened a development center in suburban Detroit in 2016, working with Fiat Chrysler to integrate its autonomous technology into Chrysler Pacifica hybrid minivans.
Visteon began testing and validating its DriveCore autonomous driving platform to evaluate algorithms, vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure technology and other systems. Toyota used the facility Wednesday to begin orientation and driver training.
ACM has so far secured $110 million to construct the first two phases from founders Ford, Hyundai America Technical Center, Toyota and Visteon, and says it expects to announce more investment soon. The facility, on the site of a former World War II bomber plant opened by Ford and later operated by GM, joins MCity, on the campus of the University of Michigan in nearby Ann Arbor, and the Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn as facilities open for AV testing in Michigan. Other smaller facilities are operated by Toyota, Hyundai-Kia, Continental Automotive and other suppliers, state agencies and academic institutions.