FCA Driverless Plan Invests $30M in Historic Test Center

The historic car testing site at Chelsea Proving Grounds in Michigan is where Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) plans to run its autonomous vehicle research.

FCA announced it is investing $30M in an autonomous driving and advanced-testing facility at the Chelsea Proving Grounds in Michigan. The test site opened in 1954 and has already undergone numerous expansions. It covers nearly 4,000 acres, boasts a road-surface total of 100 miles and features off-road replicas of the Rubicon and other challenging trails.

The carmaker said it plans to use the facility to test various levels of autonomy, plus additional automatic electronic-brake-test simulations. The site’s autonomous highway-speed track offers the capability to develop self-driving systems under a range of challenging environments, including obstacles, tunnels, varying road lighting conditions, and interstate-style exit and entrance ramps.

Investment will enable FCA to evaluate its vehicles using test protocols from third parties like the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), the US New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) and the European New Car Assessment Program (EuroNCAP). The site, which is in operation seven days a week, 365 days a year, employs around 900 people. It was home to one of the first wind tunnels owned by an automaker and is also the site of several speed records.

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.

Automakers at home and abroad are investing tens of millions into facilities designed to develop and test AV technology as the market prepares for the gradual introduction of more advanced self-driving cars, trucks and buses. German auto-giant Daimler is opening an automated truck-research and development center in Portland, Oregon, where it will design automated driving platforms for the company’s bus and truck division. Archrival BMW meanwhile is accelerating investment in China with the opening of the Shanghai Research & Development Center, comprising four departments focusing on future mobility trends and design, including a connected and automated driving lab.

In Michigan, FCA competitor Ford is bringing the shuttered Michigan Central Station in Detroit’s Corktown district back to life as a center for self-driving and electrified-vehicle development, following the building’s purchase by the carmaker. Ford plans to make Corktown the headquarters of its autonomous and electric vehicle businesses, which are developing technologies for smart and connected-vehicles and allied infrastructure.

In May, the Toyota Research Institute (TRI) announced that it is constructing a closed-course test facility in Michigan, where it will develop technology for self-driving vehicles. The Michigan site expands the institute’s closed-course testing capabilities, adding to partnerships with GoMentum Station in California, and Mcity and the American Center for Mobility, also located in Michigan.

The facility will be constructed inside MITRP’s 1.75-mile oval test track and include congested urban environments, slick surfaces and a four-lane divided highway with high-speed entrance and exit ramps. In April the state of Michigan and the UK government announced they will collaborate on developing and deploying new mobility technologies, including connected and autonomous vehicles, over the next five years.

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

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