Aisin Group's ongoing investment in its $80 million Michigan test track will pay handsome dividends as the Japanese transmission maker shifts into self-driving car components, its U.S. executives say.
Those dividends accrue not just to Aisin.
The global supplier makes its 958-acre proving ground available to automakers such as BMW Group, other suppliers and even its competitors, John Clark, president of Aisin World Corp. of America's North American sales division, told Automotive News. That means that Aisin's investment should help stimulate r&d activity for the area.
"We have six to eight companies a day using the track," Clark said. "There are more than a dozen vehicles there at any given time."
The proving ground, about an hour's drive northwest of Detroit in Fowlerville, Mich., opened in 2005. Aisin has continued investing in the site ever since.
It is undergoing its seventh expansion, converting about 16 acres to support autonomous driving technologies such as steering and braking, plus pedestrian detection. The new features will include a simulated urban setting with a five-lane intersection with advanced signals, a four-way stop, on- and off-highway ramps and high-speed driving settings.
The grounds include a nest of roadways and driving conditions for automakers and suppliers. There is also a roundabout and a 2,050-foot roadway.
"There's a lot of demand for this kind of research capacity from companies," Clark said. "Our own supply base needs it. We need it, too. Until we had this, we would have to go to our customers and ask to use their test facilities — if they had any available."
In January, Aisin added a third garage, a key-controlled 10,000-square-foot building, to give companies more privacy and security on their research vehicles.
Some 40 percent of Aisin Group's $30 billion in global business is in transmissions — a critical component today, but not necessarily so in an age of increasing electrification. Aisin is developing new product lines such as automated steering, self-parking systems, e-axles and hybrid drives.
All of that work requires new pushes in r&d, Clark said. But the same is true for virtually all suppliers and automakers.
The r&d needs also have implications for Aisin's growing North American manufacturing base. The supplier produces, among other things, about 1 million transmissions a year in North America, most of them in North Carolina, and a large percentage of them are for the company's affiliated customer, Toyota Motor Corp. and its North American units.
"The ability to have this degree of validation behind your products in a real-world setting is going to be crucial," Clark said. "The testing that we'll be able to do at Fowlerville, along with anyone else who needs access to it, will go a long way to support the industry change we're going to be seeing."