Toyota is turning Ann Arbor, Mich., into a global test site for connected cars. And the company is also placing a major research center for self-driving automobiles in the home of the University of Michigan, in the back yard of the Detroit Three automakers and already the epicenter of engineering and development enclaves for automakers worldwide.
In partnership with UM’s Transportation Research Institute, Toyota plans to equip 5,000 cars with “awareness devices” that will help Toyota and other researchers figure out how to communicate wirelessly with similar vehicles and with infrastructure such as traffic signals. This “vehicle-to-vehicle communications” arena is an important one if self-driving cars will ever be able to enjoy the road together—and with traditional vehicles in what would surely be a long transition period.
“Ann Arbor is an international hub for connected vehicle technology and research, and it has everything to do with the community,” said James R. Sayer, director of the UM institute, in a Toyota press release.
Indeed, this announcement followed quickly on Toyota’s decision to establish its third Toyota Research Institute facility near the UM campus, joining existing outposts in Silicon Valley and at MIT in Cambridge, Mass.
Interestingly, in addition to the cluster of automotive expertise and technological capabilities in Ann Arbor and southeast Michigan generally, one of the biggest reasons cited by Toyota for its new investment is the ability in Michigan to “perform extreme-limit testing in a wide variety of environments”—meaning, amid swirling snows and ubiquitous potholes in the area. This is, of course, a stark comparison to the sunny California skies where digital tech giants like Google initially led the autonomous-driving charge.
“Where we need autonomy to help most is when driving is difficult,” said Gil Pratt, CEO of the Toyota Research Institute, in the press release.
Toyota is just the latest automaker to demonstrate the industry isn’t about to just pack up, leave the Midwest and emigrate to Silicon Valley.
Ford, for instance, just announced that it’s beginning a sweeping overhaul of its 63-year-old research and engineering campus near Detroit and transform the aging, crazy-quilt collection of facilities into a “modern, green and high-tech” environment that centralizes more employees to encourage collaboration and innovation.” It’s also going to renovate the nearby, iconic Ford Word Headquarters building, known as the Glass House.