Mitten State: Michigan’s World-Class Testing Facilities are Magnet for Tech Startups

By Rachelle Damico

Michigan is on the cusp of innovation for automated vehicle technologies, and startups are capitalizing on opportunity.

Testing facilities, such as University of Michigan’s Mcity, the American Center for Mobility and the recently announced GM Mobility Research Center at Kettering University, provide an opportunity to attract startups to the state.

Through a partnership between UM's Center for Entrepreneurship and Mobility Transformation Center called TechLab, UM's 32-acre test facility, Mcity, is available to startups such as Zendrive, Civil Maps and PolySync.

Through a partnership between UM’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Mobility Transformation Center called TechLab, UM’s 32-acre test facility, Mcity, is available to startups such as Zendrive, Civil Maps and PolySync.

Leading this trend is Mcity, UM’s 32-acre connected and autonomous vehicle testing facility. In February, UM’s Center for Entrepreneurship and the Mobility Transformation Center partnered on a collaboration at Mcity called TechLab, which provides transportation technology startups access to university resources.

This September, three startup companies from the West Coast joined TechLab — Civil Maps, PolySync and Zendrive.

“I think these companies are coming from the West Coast because they see a tremendous value here,” said Carrie Morton, deputy director of the Mobility Transformation Center. “Southeast Michigan and the state in general bring a lot to bear.”

Zendrive, based in San Francisco, was the first startup to join TechLab. The company uses technology aimed at improving safety for drivers by using a driver’s smartphone to measure actions such as breaking, accelerating, swerving and smartphone use. The company was established by former Google and Facebook employees, and secured $13.5 million in funding this year from venture capitalists and other firms to improve their technology and hire additional team members.

Civil Maps, based in Albany, Calif., also secured funding. The company develops 3-D maps using artificial-intelligence software to direct autonomous vehicles. In July, Civil Maps raised $6.6 million in seed funding led by five investors that include Ford Motor Co.

PolySync, based in Portland, Ore., is developing an operating system built for the high-bandwidth requirements of autonomous driving.

“These companies are finding really interesting partnerships and talent that we hope will lead them to become permanent fixtures in Southeast Michigan,” Morton said.

There has been so much interest from both startups and students that TechLab is looking to expand, Morton said, adding that UM hopes to add another three startups to the program in the near future.

“…It’s a great opportunity for the state to make sure that this technology is developed here,” Morton said.

In the coming years, the region is likely to attract other startups with the addition of the American Center for Mobility.

The 335-acre Willow Run site will become an advanced automotive testing and product development center that can test vehicles at various weather conditions, including ice and snow, at highway speeds.

“Both as an attractor and retainer of talent, I think this offers a much wider array of opportunities, particularly for our young people who are getting educated at our universities,” said Steve Arwood, CEO for the Michigan Economic Development Corp.

The state contributed $20 million to the Ypsilanti Township-based site, which is expected to open at the end of next year.

The American Center for Mobility at Willow Run is an advanced testing and product development center scheduled to open in 2017. It is designed to test vehicles in a variety of real-world environments.

The American Center for Mobility at Willow Run is an advanced testing and product development center scheduled to open in 2017. It is designed to test vehicles in a variety of real-world environments.

“I think this certainly is our opportunity to advance our thinking in how we situate ourselves for economic development given where this is going,” Arwood said. “We’re in a position where within two to five years we may see the rise of one or two new automakers or OEMs.”

Ann Arbor SPARK initiated the project and will play a key role in economic development tied to the Center.

“We see a great deal of potential for lots of different companies to start up and grow to scale,” said Paul Krutko, Ann Arbor SPARK’s president and CEO.

Krutko said an adjacent property on the project’s site may be used as a devoted space for early stage technology companies to collaborate with bigger players in the industry. He also said the Center has been in touch with companies from Silicon Valley that are interested in its capabilities.

“I think it will be really important not only in retaining talent, but attracting talent here, because there’s going to be great opportunities to be a part of,” Krutko said.

Glenn Stevens, executive director of the Detroit Regional Chamber’s MICHauto initiative, said Michigan’s testing sites are a selling point for not just established technology companies, OEMs and suppliers, but also puts Michigan on the map among national and international companies looking to expand their prescence in the United States.

“The entire ecosystem for the development of automotive and next-generation mobility exists here in Southeast Michigan,” Stevens said.

Stevens, who sits on the American Center for Mobility’s Land Services Board, has been instrumental in helping establish the legal and financial operating parameters for the testing site.

MICHauto has also been a key voice in strengthening the state’s global leadership in mobility development for connected and autonomous vehicles through its partnership with the Michigan Mobility Initiative.

“It’s extremely critical for Michigan to use its presence in leadership and automotive as a platform for diversification into next-generation mobility because the economic opportunity for new companies, new technologies and new deployment of technologies is extremely immense,” Stevens said. “Our future depends on it.”

Rachelle Damico is a metro Detroit freelance writer.

Michigan becomes first state in nation to develop comprehensive regulations for autonomous vehicle research, development, use

In a move that will position the state to become the epicenter for driverless vehicle technology, Gov. Rick Snyder today signed legislation into law making Michigan the first state in the nation to establish comprehensive regulations for the testing, use and eventual sale of autonomous vehicle technology.

“Michigan is the global center for automotive technology and development, having transformed the way the world moves for more than 100 years,” Snyder said. “By establishing guidelines and standards for self-driving vehicles, we’re continuing that tradition of excellence in a way that protects the public’s safety while at the same time allows the mobility industry to grow without overly burdensome regulations.”

The new law, signed by Snyder at 11 a.m. at the Automotive Hall of Fame in Dearborn, more clearly defines the circumstances of how self-driving vehicles can be legally used on public roadways. The new law also allows:
• Testing of vehicles without steering wheels, pedals or needed human control;
• Automotive and technology companies to operate self-driving vehicle ride-sharing services; and
• Self-driving vehicles to be sold for public use once the technology has been tested and certified.

In addition, the new law will establish the Michigan Council on Future Mobility, an arm of the Michigan Department of Transportation that will recommend policies to set industry standards. It also will regulate connected vehicle networks and how traffic data, such as vehicle crashes, will be collected and shared.

“This legislation keeps Michigan at the forefront of a renaissance in automotive technology,” said Kirk T. Steudle, director of the Michigan Department of Transportation. “The law helps government further support the industry while not getting in the way.”

The forward-thinking legislation is the result of public and private collaborative efforts to ensure any new policy would not impact the autonomous vehicle industry’s ability to evolve safely and in an atmosphere that encourages increased research and investment. The partners who helped inform the final legislation include Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA), U.S., Ford Motor Co., General Motors, Toyota Motor Corp. and Google Inc., as well as ride-hailing companies Uber and Lyft.

Michigan is a national leader in connected and automated vehicle projects, surpassing states like California, Florida and Nevada that have yet to establish more comprehensive laws regarding self-driving vehicle technology and their use on public roads. Among these projects is the state-of-the-art American Center for Mobility; the first phase of which is in development

Located at the 335-acre historic Willow Run site in Ypsilanti Township, the Center will serve as a research, testing and self-certification facility for self-driving and connected vehicle technologies that are being developed by private industry, academia and government. It is the second purpose-built facility in the state, the first being Mcity, a smaller proving ground that mimics real-world situations and is located in Ann Arbor on the University of Michigan’s campus.

“Our leadership in the automotive industry is recognized globally and these new regulations are another example of how Michigan is forward-thinking when it comes to innovation in the mobility sector,” said Steve Arwood, CEO of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation. “By creating a more in-depth framework for how self-driving vehicle technology can be researched, tested and used, we’re building a structured plan that takes into account the needs of private industry looking to invest in research and the development of this technology.”

Pure Michigan is a brand representing business, talent and tourism initiatives across Michigan. These efforts are driven by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, which serves as the state’s marketing arm and lead advocate for business growth, jobs and opportunity with a focus on helping grow Michigan’s economy.

For more on the MEDC and its initiatives, visit MichiganBusiness.org. For Michigan travel news, updates and information, visit michigan.org. Michigan residents interested in seeking employment with any of Michigan’s growing companies should check mitalent.org, where more than 88,000 jobs are currently available in a variety of industries.

Michigan Cements Mobility Leadership with American Center for Mobility Groundbreaking

One of the 2016 “To-Do” list items from the Mackinac Policy Conference is to support the establishment of the American Center for Mobility at Willow Run. A special event, held on Monday, Nov. 21, makes achieving that goal, well on its way.

Gov. Rick Snyder, U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters, U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, John Maddox, president and CEO, American Center for Mobility, and Steve Arwood, CEO, MEDC, as well as some of the state’s top automotive technology leaders were on hand to celebrate the official groundbreaking of the $80-million project in Ypsilanti Township.

“This is a significant day for Michigan,” said Glenn Stevens, executive director of MICHauto at the Detroit Regional Chamber. “We put the world on wheels and now we are leading the world in bringing autonomous vehicles to the world.”

As one of the founding partners of the Michigan Mobility Initiative, MICHauto worked tirelessly to keep the Center’s opening a focus for the state.

Stevens, who sits on the Center’s Land Services Board, has been instrumental in helping establish the legal and financial operating parameters for the testing site.

The Center, located on 335 acres at the existing Willow Run site, is designed to test new and emerging technologies and will play an integral role in positioning Michigan to lead in the race for the connected and autonomous vehicle development.

The Center will be available for use by private industry, government, academia, among others and will serve as a technology hub, allowing companies to lease office space, garages and other amenities.

Construction is scheduled to begin next spring with the Center being open for business by December 2017.

More information on the American Center for Mobility can be found at www.acmwillowrun.org. To learn more about the future of mobility and its importance to Michigan’s ongoing economic resurgence, visit www.planetm.com.

Global Automotive Forum Offers Insight Into Future of Mobility Industry in China

As part of a strategic effort to learn more about Chinese automotive market trends and strengthen existing industry relationships, the Detroit Regional Chamber traveled to Chongqing, China in June to participate in the 2016 Global Automotive Forum. The three-day trip provided an opportunity to share the current state of the auto industry in Michigan with leading Chinese industry executives, as well as explore developments in electric vehicle manufacturing and the connected and autonomous vehicle landscape in China.

The trip builds on the Chamber’s longstanding relationship with the Chinese Council for the Promotion of International Trade (CCPIT) and was conducted in partnership with the Michigan Automotive Industry Office and Michigan-China Innovation Center.

While abroad, Justin Robinson, the Chamber’s vice president of Business Attraction, attended several events around the show and participated in a panel discussion on doing business with the Michigan automotive industry attended by representatives from Chinese suppliers. Kevin Kerrigan, senior adviser for automotive initiatives at the Michigan Economic Development Corp. (MEDC), also led a panel discussion on connected and autonomous vehicle development and electric vehicle development for over 600 attendees.

Robinson said a key takeaway from the trip was the stark difference between the two countries on a next-generation mobility strategy and current progress by our respective domestic suppliers in this space.

“While the U.S. has made a pretty full pivot into connected and autonomous technology, China’s priority still seems to be focused on new energy/electric vehicle development,” he said. “We are roughly a couple years further along in the connected mobility discussion with the exception of a very small number of leading Chinese automotive and technology firms.”

That’s where Michigan’s numerous research and development and vehicle testing assets, such as the American Center for Mobility at Willow Run, will benefit the state and country in the long-term, Robinson said.

“How can Chinese companies keep up with the technology demands of both new energy and connected and autonomous vehicle markets? Most of the Chinese OEMs and suppliers don’t have the dollars to invest in that type of research and development. It will be interesting to see how that plays out,” Robinson said.

Other key takeaways:

  • Chongqing is China’s largest manufacturing base. The city has an annual auto capacity production of 4 million vehicles with Chang’an and Ford Motor Co. making up a large percentage of this capacity.
  • Chinese brands held over 30 percent share of the Chinese passenger auto market in 2015.
  • Chinese industry execs know that the country must transform its smart mobility strategy as the industry continues to rapidly develop due to disruptive technologies. The challenge is that China’s domestic auto industry lags behind the world’s auto powers in terms of development levels, professional expertise and other related criteria.

In addition to the Automotive Forum, the Chamber and MEDC traveled to Chengdu, China in support of Michigan’s sister state, Sichuan Province. While there, the team met with Sichuan government leaders and a small number of Chinese OEM and Tier 1 suppliers with a focus on electric and autonomous technology.

As a follow up, the Chamber assisted with the hosting of the Executive Vice Governor of Sichuan to the Detroit region at the end of June featuring 80 delegates from government, industry, education and tourism. The visit was anchored by a reception hosted by Gov. Rick Snyder, and a tour of the city hosted by the Chamber featuring delegation representatives and Sichuan Executive Vice Gov. Wang Ning.

For more information on Forward Detroit, contact Marnita Hamilton at 313.596.0310. To view a full list of investors and past Investor Exclusive content, visit our Investor Resources page. For more information on Business Attraction, contact Justin Robinson at 313.596.0352.