Infield space gives Toyota a blank slate

At the Michigan Technical Resource Park in Ottawa Lake, Mich., Toyota plans to develop 60 acres of the track’s infield to test autonomous vehicles.

The need for more road-testing of self-driving vehicles has propelled Toyota to invest in another U.S. research site, in southern Michigan near the Ohio state line.

The automaker has acquired rights to use land in the Michigan Technical Resource Park in Ottawa Lake, Mich., 17 miles northeast of Toledo, Ohio. The 50-year-old park's 1.75-mile oval test track — originally created for auto part supplier research — has been seeing increased activity in recent years, and is also used as a storage yard for unsold FCA vehicles.

The site now offers Toyota a way to quickly ramp up U.S. research testing, said Rick Bourgoise, a spokesman for the automaker's autonomous driving arm, Toyota Research Institute, which has offices in Ann Arbor, Mich.; Los Altos, Calif.; and Cambridge, Mass.

Toyota intends to develop about 60 acres of the track's infield to conduct autonomous vehicle driving experiments that would be too risky for public roads. It will lease the land from the resource park.

"The existing test track gives us the ability to come in and construct on a greenfield inside the track's oval," Bourgoise said.

He declined to say how much Toyota will invest at the track, which will operate as Toyota's private course. It will feature areas designed to mimic congested urban environments, slick road surfaces, and a four-lane divided highway with high-speed entrance and exit ramps.

Toyota also gets access to the track's existing infrastructure, including garage space, a machine shop and office space.

Toyota will have exclusive use of the property inside of the oval. But Toyota's plans will consume only about half of the land in the inner ring, said Mike Jones, the technical park's owner. In total, the park encompasses 336 acres, and Jones now plans to further develop the land.

He said companies have been testing autonomous vehicles at his track for about three years.

Others investing

Toyota's move is the latest in a flurry of automakers and suppliers investing in test tracks for autonomous vehicle technology in the Detroit area.

Aisin Group, a Toyota-affiliated supplier, is taking its test track in Fowlerville, Mich., into its seventh expansion. The American Center for Mobility opened its 500-acre proving ground in Ypsilanti Township in December after injections of funding from automakers, including Toyota. And the University of Michigan's Mcity test site in Ann Arbor opened in 2016.

Investments such as Toyota's, Mcity and the American Center for Mobility show that there is industry demand for a variety of road settings from test facilities, said Glenn Stevens, executive director of MICHauto, an economic development initiative of the Detroit Regional Chamber.

‘Opportunity for more'

Stevens believes additional sites around Detroit will appear, given the amount of component technology under development in the area.

"There's an opportunity for more and more facilities," he said.

"Our desire is that companies that are here, or want to locate here, know that this automotive cluster is the place to be for them," he said.

Bourgoise said Ottawa Lake was an attractive location for Toyota, since it is close to both the American Center for Mobility and Mcity in Ann Arbor. Ottawa Lake is about 35 miles south of the Toyota Technical Center near Ann Arbor.

He said the project will not require additional hires because Toyota's Ann Arbor office will use the new facility only when needed after it opens in October.

You can reach Jack Walsworth at jwalsworth@crain.com -- Follow Jack on Twitter: @jackwalsworth

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