AV Test Centers Boom Due to ‘Less Liability’

As automakers race to reach important milestones in autonomous vehicle development, investment in research and development centers spanning the globe grew apace over the last 12 months.

Sam Barker, senior analyst for Juniper, explained that automotive OEMs have historically had a number of test centers to assess the capabilities of their vehicles, and they currently require a similar procedure to test their autonomous systems.

“Unlike tests on public roads, there is more control and less liability on the automaker when in a test environment,” he said. “Therefore, the OEMs can place much more strenuous tests on these vehicles without fears for human safety or other ramifications.”

Additionally, Barker noted these automotive OEMs have much more control of the test environment, such as introducing weather conditions and levels of light to look for failures at various levels of their autonomous systems.

“The fact that automotive OEMs are continuing to invest heavily in these facilities for autonomous vehicles highlights the progression of development above all else.”

In April, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, along with executives from Microsoft, officially opened the American Center for Mobility (ACM), housed in what was once a World War II bomber plant.

The 500-acre site opened its doors for testing last December and is one of ten federally designated proving grounds for developing and testing self-driving vehicles.

The center hosts a variety of real-world test environments, including major pieces of infrastructure such as a 2.5-mile highway loop, a 700-foot curved tunnel, two double overpasses, intersections and roundabouts.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) plans to run its AV research at the historic car testing site at Chelsea Proving Grounds in Michigan, where it will invest $30 million in an autonomous driving and advanced-testing facility.

The site’s command center covers more than 6,500 square feet and houses computer equipment critical for GPS capability and test-vehicle communication.

The advanced-driver-assistance system (ADAS) facility accommodates trials of advanced iterations of automatic emergency-braking and automated-parking technologies on a 35-acre paved test facility.

Ford and Daimler were among the automakers combining adaptive re-use strategies with AV and electric vehicle (EV) development. In June, Daimler launched an ambitious plan to transform a former coal-fired power station into a battery storage plant for its EVs.

In the Motor City, the shuttered Michigan Central Station in Detroit’s Corktown district will come roaring back to life as a center for self-driving and electrified vehicle development, following the building’s purchase by Ford.

In addition to physical test tracks and proving grounds, automakers are also splashing out for state-of-the-art virtual test facilities to move autonomous driving capabilities forward.

In September, German auto giant BMW announced construction of a facility for the simulation of real world driving situations in the north of its headquarters-city Munich.

One of the central features of the facility is the high-fidelity simulator, in which longitudinal, transverse and rotational movements of a vehicle can be represented simultaneously and, hopefully, more realistically.

“We fully expect these facilities to continue to be used,” Barker said. “Autonomous systems will continue to progress beyond initial launches in the same manner as most products, thus these centers will become imperative to testing these new systems in a controlled environment.”

He explained that as new technologies emerge, automakers will begin improving the capabilities of their systems, and these facilities will grow to become the initial proving ground for new autonomous vehicle technologies.

Automakers are swiftly moving off the test track and onto the streets as well, especially in China, where US auto giant Ford and Chinese technology company Baidu are partnering to test Level 4 autonomous vehicles on the streets of China’s capital city.

Daimler archrival BMW is also accelerating investment in China with the opening of the Shanghai Research & Development Centre, comprising four departments focusing on future mobility trends and design, including a connected and automated driving lab.

— Nathan Eddy is a filmmaker and freelance journalist based in Berlin. Follow him on Twitter.

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