Chinese investment firm partners with University in autonomous vehicle effort

Wednesday, November 2, 2016 - 5:54pm

More like this

The University of Michigan Office of Research and the College of Engineering announced a new driverless vehicle technology partnership and $27 million investment from Frontt Capital Management Ltd., a Chinese investment firm, last week.

University President Mark Schlissel and S. Jack Hu, vice president of research, signed a memorandum of understanding for the project on Oct. 15 in Shenzhen, China, with Frontt who are constructing a testing site for driverless cars in Shenzhen, that will be accessible to University researchers and faculty under to the partnership, which includes an agreement for UM advising on development for such a facility. Under the agreement, Frontt will invest in University projects, as well as give University researchers access to the Shenzhen site. zin turn, the University will advise Frontt on the development of the facility. 

“The Shenzhen facility will simulate the unique traffic environment in China, which includes different road conditions, traffic density, traffic patterns and culture,” a press release said. “China is the world’s most populous nation and one of its largest and fastest growing economies. At the same time, it contributes more greenhouse gas emissions than any other nation. Driverless and connected vehicles could offer transportation modes there that save lives and operate with greater energy efficiency.”

In the release, Hu said Mcity, an autonomous vehicle testing site on North Campus, will received part of the funding from the additional funding from Frontt.

Frontt’s future testing site and Mcity are similar in providing researchers the capability to test automated vehicles. While Mcity enables scientists to learn from confronting challenges of harsh Michigan weather, Frontt’s testing facility will enable scientists to test technology in a new environment, with different weather conditions, roads and traffic patterns.

The University’s driverless vehicle effort is currently under expansion with a plan to construct a new robotics laboratory, and Hu said Frontt’s $27 million investment will overall provide an opportunity for growth in research both locally and abroad.

“Frontt Capital investment represents an opportunity for UM researchers to work globally so that our transportation solutions will not only help improve safety and sustainability in the U.S., but also in China and other regions of the world,” Hu said.

Frontt Capital Management is not the first major company to invest in Mcity. Ford, Toyota and several Silicon Valley startups are just a few of many collaborators on the initiative.

The relationship with Frontt is accredited to the efforts of Gov. Rick Snyder, who has worked to create the Michigan-Shenzhen Trade, Investment and Innovation Cooperation Center in hopes of increasing foreign investment from Chinese businesses and investors.

A portion of Frontt's investment will also help fund the construction of a vehicle garage on North Campus, where researchers will store and develop the vehicles tested at Mcity.

Dean of Engineering Alec Gallimore wrote in an email that, though Frontt is located in China, the company’s mission is comparable to those of Mcity’s current locally-based partners.

“Sure, it’s on the other side of the world, but Frontt and many of our domestic industry partners in this sector have similar goals,” Gallimore wrote in an email. “In fact, we may be in a great position to help build bridges between Frontt and domestic companies that would like to work together.”

Kira Barton, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering who is involved with automated vehicle research at Mcity, said Frontt’s partnership will provide funding that will help her further her research.

“In my personal research, this funding will enable me to expand my research footprint in this area and invest in additional robotic platforms to demonstrate the novel algorithms and strategies that we are investigating within my research lab,” Barton said.

Through projects like this the College of Engineering, Office of Research and other departments across campus are hope to eventually get automated vehicles on the market, while ensuring the highest level of safety possible. Gallimore wrote that the College of Engineering is making a tremendous impact in creating self-driving cars, which will lead to creating safer roads and reducing the number of car accidents.

“Michigan Engineering is leading the field, both in terms of research and education,” Gallimore wrote. “Investments from Frontt, along with a range of other organizations, are enabling us to become a major change agent of mobility.”

The World Health Organization estimates that 200,000 people die on the roads of China every year. According to Hu, researchers estimate that autonomous and connected vehicles could reduce traffic deaths and injuries by as much as 90 percent.

Gillmore added that Frontt’s support in particular will help put the University at the forefront of driverless car technology development.

“That might sound overly dramatic, but I don’t think it is,” Gallimore wrote. “Connected, automated, and autonomous vehicles hold the potential for dramatic improvements in safety while reducing traffic congestion, energy use and carbon emission in cities around the world.”