Mobility in Motion

A proving ground for autonomous technology

Photo: Courtesy of Zenuity

As a central and crucial part of Michigan’s auto industry, Oakland County is taking the lead in making self-driving and connected vehicles a reality.

The county is home to local and international firms on the cutting edge of mobility technology — Google, Microsoft, Intel, Uber, Lear, Bosch, Denso and others — that are responsible for up to 70 percent of the world’s automotive and mobility research.

And the county was already a worldwide leader in automotive R&D, with operations of 75 of the top 100 global automotive suppliers here — Valeo, Borg Warner, Denso, Magna and Nexteer among them. Fiat Chrysler’s U.S. headquarters, Nissan’s North American Technical Center and General Motors’ Powertrain Center have been joined by research and development centers launched by Google’s Waymo spinoff developing self-driving cars, and Uber, for more than $1 billion in new automotive investment in just two years.

In June 2018, the county tapped the Ann Arbor office of Toronto’s P3 Mobility to finance and build a pilot program to test connected vehicle infrastructure and technology.

“On an engineering and business level, this is our moonshot,” said the late Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson.

Gary Piotrowicz, deputy managing director of the Road Commission for Oakland County, describes the effort as “no small task.” Piotrowicz notes that the county has 5,600 miles of roads and 1,600 intersections with traffic signals.

“We don’t view the magnitude of the task as an obstacle,” he says, “but a challenge to which to put our best and brightest minds to solve.”

The county’s growing stable of mobility resources includes:

Waymo: Michigan’s winter weather is a selling point for Waymo’s testing, says CEO John Krafcik.

Waymo’s 53,000-square-foot self-driving technology development center opened in Novi in May 2016. The center is close to Waymo partners including Fiat Chrysler, which provides a fleet of Chrysler Pacifica hybrid minivans outfitted with Waymo sensors.

In fall 2017, Waymo put the first driverless test vehicle on the road in Phoenix, Ariz., having already tested its self-driving vehicles on 3.5 million miles of public roads in 20 different cities.

Continental AG: The Germany-based global supplier with U.S. headquarters in Auburn Hills decided in July 2018 to realign its Chassis and Safety and its Automotive Interiors divisions into two new business areas called “Autonomous Driving Technologies” and “Vehicle Networking Technologies,” respectively, by the beginning of 2020.

Continental is partnering with the State of Michigan to test attaching sensors to snowplows, police cars and other government vehicles to map road conditions and create a hyper-accurate, high-definition map database for autonomous vehicles. In 2017, Continental unveiled its new BEE (Balanced Economy and Ecology) vehicle mobility concept, a pod-like, two-seater electric self-driving vehicle for urban areas.

Dataspeed Inc.: The Rochester Hills engineering firm partnered with Lawrence Technological University in Southfield in 2017 on the research and development of an autonomous campus taxi. Dataspeed is already noted for its ADAS kit, which converts a stock Lincoln MKZ or Ford Fusion into a drive-by-wire vehicle completely controlled by computer.

Originally founded as a mobile robotics firm in 2008, Dataspeed specializes in combining robotics with mobility.

“We see an AV (autonomous vehicle) as a robot, specifically a mobile robot, with tasks it must perform autonomously, foremost, to transport passengers safely,” Dataspeed CEO Paul Fleck explains.

Zenuity: A joint venture between safety and electronics supplier Veoneer (recently spun out of Autoliv) and Volvo Cars, Zenuity has a growing office in Farmington Hills (soon moving to Novi), and facilities in Germany and Sweden. Zenuity develops autonomous vehicle software, as well as applications for driver assistance systems.

Dan Patient, managing director of Zenuity’s U.S. operations, says the product portfolio will include software products aimed at increasing safety by decreasing driver error. They run the gamut from Advanced Driver Assistance Systems to fully autonomous driving. “We are a technology company with roots in the auto industry,” Patient says.

“We share the vision that Michigan is the right place to develop new mobility solutions and metro Detroit is at the heart of that activity.”

This article, written by Brian O’Connor, originally appeared in the 2019 edition of Oakland County Prosper magazine.