Ford and University of Michigan to expand autonomous vehicle research at new robotics lab


In a bid to accelerate its autonomous vehicle development program, Ford is becoming the first corporation to co-locate in an academic building, as it works side by side with University of Michigan (U-M) researchers in a new state-of-the-art robotics center.

Ford and the University of Michigan have announced that they are teaming up to accelerate autonomous vehicle research and development with a first-ever arrangement that embeds Ford researchers and engineers in a new state-of-the-art robotics laboratory on U-M’s Ann Arbor campus. Although the new robotics laboratory won’t open until 2020, Ford will move a dozen researchers into the North Campus Research Complex (NCRC) by the end of this year. Ten years into the Ford-University of Michigan Innovation Alliance, the two parties have agreed that the auto maker will lease the fourth floor of the new robotics laboratory. It is an approximately 140,000ft2 building on Hayward Street, east of the university’s Space Research Building. The planned robotics laboratory will have space where machines walk, fly, drive and swim. The building will house labs, offices and classrooms, continuing a tradition of robotics leadership at U-M that includes the creation of MABEL, the world’s fastest-running robot with knees.

By placing a team of more than 100 employees on campus, Ford benefits from being close to technical leaders, as well as local facilities such as Mcity, a one-of-a-kind urban simulation test environment in Ann Arbor. Ford and U-M have announced that professors Matthew Johnson-Roberson and Ram Vasudevan, who began collaborating with Ford earlier this summer, will serve as leaders of a new autonomous vehicle research team comprising graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers. U-M’s College of Engineering has also named Professor Jessy Grizzle as director of robotics. He also serves as the key liaison between Ford’s autonomous vehicle research program and the College of Engineering.

The announcement is the latest in a series of actions by Ford as it moves toward having fully autonomous SAE-defined level 4-capable vehicles available for high-volume commercial use in 2021. Last week, the company’s chief executive officer, Mark Fields (below), said Ford intends to start selling driverless cars to the general public by about 2025. In a speech at company headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan, Fields said, “The goal is to lower costs enough to make autonomous vehicles affordable to millions of people. Around mid-decade we’ll make vehicles available for people to purchase for themselves. We’re dedicated to putting autonomous vehicles on the road for millions of people, not just those who can afford luxury cars. We believe this next decade is really going to be defined by the automation of the automobile.”

Speaking about the partnership with U-M, Fields said, “Ford engineers and researchers will begin working shoulder to shoulder with U-M faculty and students to test and learn about autonomous vehicle technology and innovation. We are aiming to show the world what we can achieve when leaders in business and academia work together to make people’s lives better.”

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Tom has edited Traffic Technology International (TTi) magazine and its Traffic Technology Today website since May 2014. During his time at the title, he has interviewed some of the top transportation chiefs at public agencies around the world as well as CEOs of leading multinationals and ground-breaking start-ups. Tom's earlier career saw him working on some the UK's leading consumer magazine titles. He has a law degree from the London School of Economics (LSE).