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University breaks ground on Mobility Transformation Center

(Ruby Wallau/Daily)
Interim Vice President for Research Jack Hu, Dean of the College of Technology Dave Munson, Michigan Department of Transportation representative Greg Johnson, and the Director of Mobility Transformation Center Peter Sweatman participate in a ceremonial ground breaking for the Michigan Mobility Transformation center Tuesday at the Michigan North Campus Research Complex. Buy this photo

By Ian Dillingham, Summer Editor in Chief
Published May 6, 2014

Every year in the United States, more than 30,000 people are killed in motor vehicle accidents. In an effort to cut that number, the University is laying the groundwork to research systems that could remove one of the most dangerous components from the modern automobile — the driver.

In a small ceremony outside the North Campus Research Complex Tuesday, University administrators and executives from various fields met for the ceremonial groundbreaking of the University’s Mobility Transformation Center, which was conceived to move the University forward in researching connected and automated vehicle technology.

The facility, which is being constructed at a cost of $6.5 million, received support from public agencies — most notably the Michigan Department of Transportation — and a private “leadership circle,” which includes Robert Bosch LLC, Econolite Group Inc., Ford Motor Co., General Motors Co., Toyota Motor Corp. and Xerox Corp. Representatives from the organizations met for the first time at Tuesday’s event.

Peter Sweatman, director of the MTC and UMTRI, said the new complex is “not your grandmother’s test track.” The center will feature “a simulation of dense, complex, urban vehicle operation,” including a variety of stoplights and signals, as well as simulated pedestrians, buses and other vehicles.

“MTC is about cutting edge research, but this great University is taking on a bigger task — to accelerate the employment of great technologies and creating great facilities,” Sweatman said.

Construction on the 32-acre facility, which will be located just off Plymouth Road, is slated to begin in June with estimated completion in September. If all goes according to plan, Sweatman said the track could be operational in time for the Intelligent Transportation Society of America 2014 World Congress in Detroit, a convention that will showcase the latest high-tech innovations within the auto industry.

Collaboration between public and private entities played a key role in the center’s establishment, as the University looks for new ways to bridge the gap between basic research and commercial applications.

S. Jack Hu, interim vice president for research, said he has made “public-private partnerships” a major focus of his tenure.

“Not only can we do research, but we can also translate research into commercial and societal impacts,” Hu said.

Through the University’s currently established Transportation Research Institute, UMTRI, researchers have been exploring connected vehicle technology as a way to promote driver safety and fuel efficiency. The institute is conducting a large-scale pilot study of such systems in Ann Arbor.

While MTC will focus primarily on autonomous vehicles, Engineering Dean David Munson said the two disciplines — connected systems and autonomous function — are intertwined in their goal of promoting driver safety. The result, he said, could be a future where it is “almost impossible to crash your car”.

Munson added that the University has established a niche nationally as a leader in driver safety research. While several other universities around the nation have established similar transportation institutes, he said they tend to gravitate toward civil engineering tasks, such as roadway construction, rather than on the driver.

“We’re at the beginning of what might be termed the most exciting moment in history in the automotive industry,” Munson said.

However, he added the technology will not be implemented overnight. In addition to research, there are a great number of industry adjustments and policy decisions that must be addressed before the cars of the future can hit public roads.

“There are going to be a lot of issues that are not just technological issues,” Munson said. “And we have to figure it out, because we can make it a better world if we figure it out.”


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