NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- A new 32-acre track at the University of Michigan that emulates road and urban infrastructure will help automakers and suppliers study autonomous driving technologies under simulated conditions.
The $10 million project, supported by state and federal subsidies, opened on Monday in Ann Arbor, representing an opportunity for the Detroit area to regain investment and attract research into self-driving vehicles that has been directed to Silicon Valley. Google (GOOGL) - Get Report was the first company to demonstrate cars that don't necessarily need drivers and is testing prototypes on California roads.
Called mCity, the University of Michigan track already has drawn a number of technology partners including Toyota (TM) - Get Report, General Motors (GM) - Get Report, Ford (F) - Get Report, Nissan (NSANY) and Honda (HMC) - Get Report, as well as parts makers Bosch, Denso (DNZOY) and Delphi Automotive (DLPH) - Get Report.
State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance is a backer as insurance companies are eager to understand how the risks of driverless vehicles will be assessed and monetized. A major advantage of autonomous vehicles rests on the assumption that they can eliminate many or most accidents, deaths and injuries by replacing poor human decisions -- the cause of most traffic accidents -- with responses driven by digital systems, sensors and artificial intelligence.
Sen. Gary Peters, a Michigan Democrat, vocalized the hopes and frustrations of many in the automotive Midwest who have watched jobs and cutting-edge ideas and automotive technology move away and be developed elsewhere.
"Google has got nothing on us," Peters said at the ceremony. "This is the center of the (automated driving technology) universe. It is Michigan. It's not California.
"We are not going to let Silicon Valley take this technology," he said, "because this technology was born at the University of Michigan, born in the greater Detroit area, and we're going to be the global leader of this technology that will transform mobility."
In June, Ford said it intended to move autonomous driving research activities from its laboratories in Palo Alto, Calif., to its advanced engineering center in Dearborn, Mich.
While the auto industry can't predict reliably when the first fully autonomous car might reach the market, the companies said they are steadily overcoming technical hurdles. The costs of autonomous technology, however, are steep, meaning that giants such as Toyota and GM have an inherent advantage over smaller players. In May, Mazda (MZDAF) of Japan and Toyota announced a technology partnership aimed at mitigating research costs.
A visitor to the track will see intersections, brick and gravel roads, a simulated railroad crossing, roundabouts, building facades, parking spaces, a highway on-ramp and dummy pedestrians, all meant to recreate an urban driving environment in all its complexity. A metal bridge and a tunnel are meant to pose difficulties for vehicle-sensing systems, such as vehicle-to-vehicle communication.
Test facilities specializing in autonomous driving already exist in other countries. Toyota has built one near Mt. Fuji in Japan with many of the same features as the new track. But engineers and scientists at Toyota's research-and-development center near Ann Arbor now can conduct experiments and gather data without trans-Pacific travel.
This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.