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Testing Sites for Self-Driving Cars Become a Priority


The University of Michigan is working to convert General Motors’ Willow Run site in Ypsilanti, Mich., into a testing site for autonomous vehicles. The complex will be called the American Center for Mobility. G.M. made bombers there during World War II. Credit Fabrizio Costantini for The New York Times

DETROIT — Spurred by the fatal crash of a driver operating his Tesla Motors car in Autopilot mode, lawmakers and car executives are urging the Transportation Department to intensify the testing of self-driving vehicles.

Three Michigan lawmakers, Senators Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow and Representative Debbie Dingell, are pushing for a testing center, overseen by the federal government, that would enable automakers and regulators to collaborate on the development of autonomous vehicles and validate their reliability and safety.

The three met here on Friday with the nation’s transportation secretary, Anthony Foxx, and the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Mark R. Rosekind.

The four officials spent part of the day touring a potential location for such a center – a 335-acre site where the former General Motors Willow Run plant once made bombers during World War II. The University of Michigan is already working to turn the location into an autonomous-vehicle test complex to be called the American Center for Mobility.

“We know we need a national testing and validation site,” Senator Peters said at an automotive digital security conference here. “We need one in place where all the auto companies can come together.”

The senator said such a facility was needed to help keep the United States competitive in the race to develop the self-driving cars of the future. China, Japan, Germany and Sweden are also rushing to set up testing centers.


A video of Joshua Brown in his self-driving Tesla Model S. Mr. Brown was killed in May when the car failed to distinguish a bright sky from a white tractor trailer. Credit YouTube, via Associated Press

The early trials of autonomous technology typically have taken place in closed proving grounds that automakers have used for decades. But more and more, testing is being done on public roads.

Google’s fleet of driverless test cars has logged more than 1.5 million miles driving in California and elsewhere. General Motors has outfitted a small number of Chevrolet Bolt electric cars with autonomous technology and is “running them around San Francisco,” Mary Barra, the company’s chief executive, said. Ford Motor is assembling a fleet of 30 self-driving cars that will be tested on public roads.

Tesla’s Autopilot is being developed as customers are using it. The company describes its launch of the technology as only a “beta” test, and says it is gathering data from vehicles equipped with it to perfect the system.

The fatal Tesla crash, which occurred on May 7 but was first made public by the highway safety agency on June 30, “heightens the need” for a cooperative test center, Senator Peters said.

The accident killed Joshua Brown, 40, an entrepreneur from Ohio, and has increased concern about the industry’s rush to develop self-driving cars. It is the first known fatal crash involving a vehicle driven mainly by itself via computer software and sensors.

Mr. Brown was in his 2015 Tesla Model S, traveling about 65 miles per hour, when it crashed into a tractor-trailer crossing the roadway in Williston, Fla. Tesla, whose vehicles have the ability to send the company data on their operating conditions, has said that the Autopilot was engaged at the time, and that neither Mr. Brown nor the system activated the brakes before impact.

Tesla’s Autopilot system scans the road with radar and cameras, but it failed to see the white truck against a bright sky, according to the company. The highway safety agency is investigating whether the incident resulted from a flaw in Tesla’s technology. The National Transportation Safety Board, which more often looks into airplane and train accidents, is also investigating the crash.


The University of Michigan has already established a testing site for autonomous cars called Mcity in Ann Arbor, Mich. It has simulated city streets and intersections, with crosswalks, traffic lights, storefronts, road signs and a tunnel. Credit Laura McDermott for The New York Times

At the Billington Global Automotive Cybersecurity Summit here, Mr. Rosekind, the highway safety administrator, declined to comment on his agency’s investigation. But he said he believed autonomous-driving technology could eventually save thousands of lives and wants carmakers to continue developing it rapidly.

“There will be incidents, but we can’t wait for the perfect,” he said.

A spokesman for Mr. Foxx confirmed that the secretary met with the Michigan representatives on Friday. Their proposal to initiate a competition among facilities to be chosen as a national testing center is under consideration, the spokesman said.

Senator Peters said a national testing center was critical to accelerating development of the technology while minimizing the risk of accidents. He and Representative Dingell urged Mr. Foxx and Mr. Rosekind to solicit proposals from potential test sites.

Among the possible contenders is a former military base in California that has been turned into a 2,100-acre test site. Called GoMentum Station, it has about 20 miles of paved roads and a cluster of barracks and buildings that provide an urban environment. Virginia Tech is also working to set up a test site outside Blacksburg, Va.

The University of Michigan has already established a 32-acre autonomous-car test facility in Ann Arbor, Mich., known as Mcity. It features simulated city streets and intersections, with traffic lights, road signs and a tunnel.

The Willow Run site is much larger and would allow automakers to test self-driving cars at highway speeds and in more complex environments. Its roadways include overpasses and bridges.

The Willow Run location in Michigan is close to technical centers operated by several automakers, including G.M., Ford, Toyota, Fiat Chrysler and Hyundai. Google’s self-driving car test is also opening an engineering center in Michigan.

Senator Peters said the concentration of automotive companies would make the Willow Run complex a top choice for the kind of national center he is advocating.

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