Rubber Meets the Road for Self-Driving Tech at the American Center for Mobility

January 2, 2019
Updated 2mo ago

By Justin Chermol

In a new era of transportation, safety testing is critical for cars that are now more dependent on tech than on steel and rubber.

The American Center for Mobility is a 500-acre testing facility located in Ypsilanti, Mich., just over 30 miles from Detroit. On the center's highway speed loop, self-driving vehicles are tested for safety on a range of roadway and weather conditions.

"It's gotta work all the time, every time," the center's interim CEO, Kirk Steudle, told Cheddar's J.D. Durkin.

The ACM's historic Willow Run site was used to build B-24 bombers during WWII. In April, the site relaunched to test the car of the future. As major transportation companies like Tesla, Uber, and Lyft continue to roll out self-driving vehicles, the need for safety is the highest priority. Progress toward making self-driving cars a regular sight on public roads was slowed by several high-profile crashes, including an accident by a self-driving Uber that killed a woman in Arizona in March.

ACM takes that responsibility seriously. Unlike cell phones or other tech gadgets, Steudle said self-driving technology is held to the highest automotive-grade standard.

"Yeah, ok, so I got to reboot my phone," he said. "Well, my phone isn't going 60 miles-per-hour down a road, the vehicle is. And if it doesn't do what it's supposed to do, it could have catastrophic consequences."

The future of the autonomous vehicle is highly dependent on the technology "under the hood." The ACM understands that in a transportation revolution, the tech that backs the vehicle is just as important. It has sponsors from U.S. auto companies like Ford and GM, as well as from tech giants like AT&T and Microsoft.

Despite anxiety about auto industry job losses, including GM's announced layoffs of 14,000 workers, Steudle said advanced tech will bring more jobs to support maintenance, research, and development.

"The best part about humans is we are adaptive to what's going on. We learn, we adapt, and then we excel. So, I think that same thing will happen here. Some jobs will certainly be impacted significantly more than others, but there will be certain opportunities as well," Steudle said.

Michigan has legalized autonomous vehicles on all road. And Steudle believes that Michigan and Detroit, the one-time Silicon Valley of automotive engineering and manufacturing, should be at the forefront of the revolution of transportation.

"Michigan is the place to put the world on wheels," Steudle told Cheddar. "It's only natural that this be the place that reinvents how that movement of people and goods ー or mobility ー happens into the future."