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Kettering autonomous vehicle testing facility aims for late summer completion

Release Date:2018-03-12

Updated Posted 

An aerial of the Kettering University GM Mobility Research Center at the conclusion of Phase 1 of construction on August 25, 2017

An aerial of the Kettering University GM Mobility Research Center at the conclusion of Phase 1 of construction on August 25, 2017(Kettering University)

FLINT, MI -- Construction of Kettering University's General Motors Mobility Research Center will be completed in late summer.

The state-of-the-art vehicle and mobility testing center was built in three phases and provides ground for research and development of autonomous vehicles, vehicle safety standards, as well as hybrid and electric vehicle technologies.

"This facility is the only one of its kind in the United States," said Robert McMahan, Kettering University president. "We had to do all of the site improvements that allow us to develop on. We've completed the first and second phases, we hope to finish the third phase by late summer."

Before building on the 21-acre brownfield that formerly housed GM's Chevrolet Division, the previous cement and grounds had to be removed so extensive new drainage and water management systems could be installed.

"Then we put the environmental caps back on," McMahan said. "The environmental cap seals the surface so that con***inants can't run off."

The Kettering University Shell Eco Marathon team practicing on the General Motors Mobility Research Center in May 2017.

"It's a precision surface," McMahan said. "It's almost 24 inches thick when you combine the foundation and the asphalt. It's stable, unbroken, very smooth and leveled."The first phase of the $7 million project was the construction of a 3.25-acre customization test pad built to race track performance specifications. It was completed in 2016.

Kettering received a $1.9 million grant from the United State Economic Development Administration that supported the construction of the project's second phase.

The second phase involved the construction of a low-speed performance course with elevation and surface changes, optional routes and other features to create diverse testing environments. Construction began in 2017. Two of the three layers of asphalt that are required for the track have been applied.

"We have to work with the weather," McMahan said. "We got the first two layers down but then it got really cold, really fast and when it gets cold here the asphalt plants shut down. As soon as the plants open back up, we'll put the finishing layer of asphalt on and start construction of the annex building."

The road course is a large oval track with a width of 15-feet and features S-curves, elevation and surface changes as well as straightaways. It will be ideal for vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication testing and can be used in conjunction with the test pad.

Construction of a research annex with labs, offices and a garage with vehicle bays is the third phase of the project.

Funding for the center includes a $2 million investment from the GM Foundation, $1.9 million grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration and private donors, including Ghassan Saab and Don Ableson.

General Motors has also provided $2 million to fund the General Motors Advanced Powertrain Research Laboratory in the C.S. Mott Science and Engineering Building.

"We needed a state of the art facility so that we could do this advance development, and it's kind of a nice story if you think about it," McMahan said. "This site used to be the center of the U.S. automotive industry at one point, it's where General Motors was founded. Now, kind of going full circle, it's the place where the next generation of vehicles are being created."

The future, McMahan said, is autonomous cars. An autonomous car is an unmanned ground vehicle that is able to sense its environment and navigate without human interaction.

"These cars will be capable of communicating with one another and the infrastructure," McMahan said. "So, there's a communications infrastructure you have to build in support, as well as the physical spaces. We have the only 4G L.T.E. advanced data network owned and operated by the university in the nation."

According to McMahan, there are cell towers surrounding the university that cover a radius within and surrounding the campus. This allows autonomous cars to move in a safe communications environment where they can be controlled from anywhere on campus.

"So it's a world-class engineering and development facility right here in the heart of Flint and it's unique on a college campus," McMahan said. "We're not aware of any other university in the nation that has anything like this."

Construction of the Mobility Research Center will be completed late this summer, but students are already using the test pad to conduct research. 

McMahan said students are participating in the AutoDrive Challenge, a three-year autonomous vehicle competition tasking students to develop and demonstrate a fully autonomous driving passenger vehicle. The technical goal of the competition is to navigate an urban driving course in an automated driving mode.

Kettering student Alex Rath driving the Kettering AutoDrive team's car at the Mobility Research Center. The AutoDrive competition is a student competition sponsored by SAE and GM for students to build a fully autonomous vehicle. Kettering is one of eight universities in the world chosen to participate.

The competition consists of 8 teams from select universities around the world and the first of three competitions will take place in the spring.

Housing a mobility research center like this will allow Kettering to attract students serious about research mobility and automotive engineering, automotive networking and cybersecurity.

The university hopes the research center will create new research opportunities and collaboration between its 600 corporate and industry partners, university faculty and students.

"One of our core missions at this institute is being a partner in the rebuilding and revitalization of Flint," McMahan said. "Companies will come here to use this space for research and collaboration with the university. So they might be more likely to locate facilities here and hire people in this area."

Once completed the facility will be open for use 24/7 and year round.

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