CSE faculty lead university collaboration with Toyota on autonomous vehicles

Faculty members Edwin Olson and Ryan Eustice are joining TRI as area leads.

The test track at MCity Enlarge
The test track at MCity

In a step that bolsters the region’s strong driverless technology development ecosystem, the University of Michigan will be collaborating with Toyota in the automaker’s plan to establish a major autonomous vehicle research base in Ann Arbor.

Part of the corporation’s $1 billion investment in the Toyota Research Institute (TRI), the Ann Arbor facility will be Toyota’s third such hub in the U.S. It joins others established recently in Palo Alto working with Stanford, and in Cambridge with MIT. The Ann Arbor location is scheduled to open in June, with an eventual staff of 50. There, Toyota will fund research in artificial intelligence and robotics to support fully autonomous, or chauffeured, driving and to accelerate scientific discovery in materials science.

TRI’s research effort in Ann Arbor is the most recent of many driverless, connected and automated vehicle-related facilities and endeavors in southeast Michigan that U-M either leads or plays a central role in.

Faculty members Edwin Olson and Ryan Eustice are joining TRI as area leads. Both will be based at the Ann Arbor office and retain part-time U-M faculty positions. Olson is an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science. Eustice is an associate professor of naval architecture and marine engineering and has an additional appointment in CSE.

“We are thrilled to welcome Toyota’s enhanced participation in our continually growing autonomous vehicle ecosystem,” said David Munson, the Robert J. Vlasic Dean of Engineering. “The roots of today’s automobile are in this region, and we think it’s future is here too. The research we’re advancing will fundamentally transform the transportation landscape.”

Eustice will lead the mapping/localization effort and Olson the perception thrust.

“Sensor hardware and algorithms are improving at a tremendous pace,” Olson said. “TRI researchers will push the frontier even further, resulting in safer vehicles on the road and more helpful robots in the home.”

Added Eustice, “Ann Arbor is a fantastic location for TRI to expand its autonomous driving efforts. We will benefit from Toyota’s existing team and U-M’s research talent and facilities, where we can perform extreme-limit testing in a wide variety of environments.”

Toyota is already a Leadership Circle partner in the Mobility Transformation Center (MTC), a University of Michigan-based research partnership of industry, government and academia that is laying the foundation for a commercially viable system of connected and automated vehicles. MTC operates Mcity, the nation’s only simulated city for testing connected, automated and autonomous vehicles. Mcity opened in 2015.

“Beyond the extraordinary work that the U-M is doing broadly in advancing automotive safety research – and in autonomous driving, in particular – Toyota has deep roots in the Ann Arbor community,” said Gill Pratt, CEO of the new institute. He made the Ann Arbor announcement in a keynote address at the high-profile GPU Technology Conference in Silicon Valley.

“TRI was drawn to Ann Arbor because of the strength of the university; the utility of Mcity and the Mobility Transformation Center, which we currently sponsor; the promise of the future American Center for Mobility at Willow Run; and the proximity to, and synergies with, our two well-established Toyota Technical Centers nearby.”

The Toyota Technical Centers have been doing research on autonomous cars for more than a decade. A group of about 15 team members currently employed there will transfer to the new Ann Arbor facility when it opens.

The American Center for Mobility at Willow Run that Pratt mentioned is a new nonprofit organization led, in part, by U-M. Its aim is to help accelerate advanced mobility vehicle development safely while bringing economic opportunity to southeast Michigan and the nation. Last month, it appointed MTC Assistant Director John Maddox as its CEO.

U-M has been at the center of intelligent transportation systems research and deployment for many years. In addition to the previously mentioned autonomous vehicle development efforts, the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI) and its partners are operating the Ann Arbor Connected Vehicle Test Environment, which will become the world’s largest operational, real-world deployment of connected vehicles and infrastructure. Ultimately, U-M plans to deploy vehicles in Ann Arbor that provide an on-demand mobility service.

The Toyota Research Institute program is designed to bridge the gap between fundamental research and product development. With initial funding of $1 billion, the institute has four mandates. It aims to enhance the safety of automobiles with the ultimate goal of creating a car that is incapable of causing a crash, regardless of the skill or condition of the driver. The institute is working to increase access to cars for those who otherwise cannot drive; to transform products for outdoor mobility into products for indoor mobility; and to accelerate scientific discovery by applying techniques from artificial intelligence and machine learning to other areas, particularly materials science, in order to lower costs and improve performance of future mobility systems.