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Washtenaw County’s Contributions To Our Driving Future On Display At the Detroit Auto Show

Car enthusiasts will peruse new and future vehicles at the North American International Auto Show over the next week. But, there is more to look at than just cars, SUV’s and trucks.  As 89.1 WEMU's Jorge Avellan discovered, Washtenaw County is helping lead the way and is on prominent display.  

The North American International Auto Show opens to the public Saturday morning after a week of media previews.  Over 750 vehicles are on display at Cobo Center in Detroit.  The vehicle exhibits on the main floor may draw more of the attention, but it’s what’s located on the lower level that will drive the future of the auto industry.  And, as we found out, Washtenaw County is playing a significant role in driving us to that future. 

"One of the reasons why we’re here at the auto show, in the 'AutoMobili-D' space is to increase that awareness, do some more outreach and recruit additional customers."

Mark Chaput is Vice President of Facility Operations and Construction at the American Center for Mobility in Ypsilanti Township.  The connected and autonomous vehicle testing facility opened in late 2017 and is looking to become a major resource for the future of the auto industry.

"A lot of autonomous technologies are out. You’ve heard maybe some of the incidents that have happened. Some crashes, and even a few fatalities occurred along the way where autonomous vehicles may be out prematurely on the public roadways. So it’s really important to come to a facility like American Center for Mobility in a closed environment, a safe environment to prove out and validate these technologies well before they move them out into the open road and expose them to the public."

While making sure that connected and autonomous vehicles are safe to put on the road, how individuals interact with the advance technology will be essential to the future success of the auto industry.  That’s where the University of Michigan’s research and testing facility Mcity comes to play.  Huei Peng is the director.

"There is also subjective data, for example, surveys, interviewing the users and making sure that we understand how they use these vehicles. Do they trust these vehicles? What do they think needs to be changed so that they use and trust these vehicles better? So all of these are examples of pre-competitive questions that we can work with companies together to provide data to provide a learning experience and share with 60 industry members. Currently, we have 60 company members."

As you walk through the AutoMobili-D exhibition, you’ll find a number of students from Washtenaw County, not only learning, but helping develop the technology for a new generation of cars.  Eastern Michigan University has a booth featuring a cybersecurity program designed to prevent cars from being hacked.  PhD student Pooja Patil showed me an example by using a remote-controlled car.

Pooja: "We are just sending a simple text file, like a number, like number six. We are just sending it in a file, its storing and then the car is reading that. And let’s suppose that number six is going to veer the steering, so when we send it, it veers it and then it goes out of control."
Jorge: "That’s a scary thought, isn’t it?"
Pooja: "Yes, it is. So that’s why we’re going to avoid it."

Washtenaw Community College also offers a cybersecurity program at its Advanced Transportation Center.  At its auto show booth, you can also see how students are learning how to build lighter cars for better fuel economy.  Center director Al Lecz says it’s an education that will leave students well-prepared for the future workforce.

"We’re listening closely to all of the major auto suppliers and sub-suppliers and so forth. They’re guiding us with what they need for their employees and the technologies they’re developing. So we have a lot of guidance, and I’m talking about Ford, General Motors and Toyota and Magna International and Roush. And so many of these companies are giving us information on what we should be teaching in order to provide the skills sets that their technicians are going to require."

Those taking part in the AutoMobili-D exhibit say it’s this type of technology and the continued passion to keep producing the cars of tomorrow that will keep Michigan behind the wheel of the auto industry.

The North American International Auto Show will be open to the public from January 19th - 26th.

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— Jorge Avellan is a reporter for 89.1 WEMU News. Contact him at 734.487.3363 or email him javellan@emich.edu

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