Toyota Builds Autonomous Vehicle Test Track in Michigan

The Toyota Research Institute (TRI) announced this week that it is constructing a closed-course test facility where it will develop technology for autonomous vehicles.
TRI, a subsidiary of Toyota Motor North America, announced that construction permits were filed this week to build the approximately 60-acre site at Michigan Technical Resource Park (MITRP) in Ottawa Lake, which is scheduled to be completed in October.

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.

The site, which has been a vehicle proving ground since 1968, will be used exclusively by the research unit to replicate demanding driving scenarios that would be too dangerous to perform on public roads.

“Closed course test facilities are vital to the development of automated vehicle technologies because they allow us to subject our systems to severe conditions, seldom encountered in the real world on public roads,” TRI Communications Director John Hanson told The Connected Car. “All test miles are not created equal.”

Hanson explained that driving on smooth pavement, at midday, in light traffic, on a straight country road, with few intersections is easy for a human driver, and equally easy for the automated driving machine.

“Closed course testing allows us to devise devious and demanding ‘edge cases’ allowing the car to learn how to better perceive, predict and plan to maneuver around and avoid crashes that most human drivers would find difficult, if not impossible,” he explained.

At the new facility in Michigan, Hanson said that TRI has the “added benefit” of the state’s “challenging” winters.

Sold to a private developer in 2010, the 336-acre technology park currently operates as a venue available to various automotive and commercial vehicle OEMs and component suppliers for test purposes.

The institute, which is leasing the land from MITRP, is responsible for the design, construction and ultimate maintenance of the facility, and the TRI will also have access to the oval track and other onsite facilities and services, which are owned by MITRP and provided to all its customers.

“Testing is critically important for AV providers and OEMs to further develop their machine and deep-learning algorithms and expose neural networks to different and challenging self-driving scenarios,” David Immerman, associate analyst for Internet of Things at 451 Research, told The Connected Car.

He explained some OEMs have not yet brought their AVs to the public roads, which makes private and closed-off AV operations a necessary undertaking.

“There is lower risk and fewer regulatory hurdles with limiting an AV to private roads, yet they still provide a foundation for self-driving system development,” he said.

Bet on more test facilities in the Detroit area, Immerman said, not only because of its proximity to several automotive OEM and tier supplier operations, but also — as Hanson noted — because of its range of weather patterns.

“Most AV development, testing and operations have been in less hazardous environmental climates — Southern California, Arizona — versus states where there can be a range of weather instances,” Immerman said.

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