See inside Kettering University's new proving grounds and research center

FLINT, Michigan — For 20 years, long before becoming dean of Kettering University’s College of Engineering, Craig Hoff looked out his office window to a brownfield that had been one of the largest Chevy production facilities in the country. 

Rich with history, it sat as an abandoned wasteland for decades.   

“Well, back in the day, they didn’t keep track of toxic chemicals the way they should have, so the ground is polluted. You couldn’t dig a hole in the ground for a new foundation for a building, so what do you do with it?” Hoff explains. 

“So some of us automotive people thought, let's build a proving ground out there.”

Kettering President Robert McMahan landed initial funding for the project in 2015 with a donation from the GM Foundation. In 2016, it won another $1.9 million from the U.S. Economic Development Administration. 

The land was capped to stop the spread of any pollutants and test wells installed so that the ground could continue to be monitored — and the Kettering University GM Mobility Research Center became a reality.

“The MRC will have a tremendous impact on our ability to continue educating the nation’s best and most innovative scientists and engineers. It will open up many new opportunities for our faculty to engage in applied research at the cutting edge of autonomous vehicle systems design and engineering,” McMahan said in a statement. 

With the 3-acre track and the addition this fall of a new research building, construction now is in its final stages. This state-of-the-art, one-of-a-kind research center is expected to be completed by winter. The facility is also open to the university’s 600-some corporate partners for researching, developing, and testing new mobility and transportation technologies.

“These students will develop new technologies that will impact the industry and become thought leaders moving into the job market,” Hoff says. “That’s where we always want to be with our education initiatives and pushing the line between real-world impacts and industry-ready knowledge for our students.” 

The facility is designed to put the university and Flint at the forefront of vehicle dynamics research — including engineering safer vehicles and development of electric, hybrid, and autonomous vehicles. “There are all kinds of things we try to do with cars when we’re developing handling systems and steering systems, and that area of study is what we mean when we talk about vehicle dynamics,” Hoffs says. 

The 3-acre pad and handling loops allow vehicles to perform variable maneuvers, from wider to tighter turns, in changing elevation. The track is also Kettering’s home to it’s Autodrive Challenge team, a real-life application of autonomous vehicle technology. Kettering is one of only eight schools nationwide that is participating in the Society of Automotive Engineers competition. 

Autonomous vehicles are the ultimate in “smart cars.” This still-evolving technology uses artificial intelligence, data analysis and machine learning to program vehicles to drive themselves.

Hoff is quick to point to the importance of this research being done right here in Flint. “Autonomous vehicles are coming, and all the automakers are working really hard to make that happen,” he says. “Part of the challenge is developing the technology, but first you have to develop the people who can then develop the technology. … It’s happening right here in Flint. This is where we are doing that. This is where we are people-building.” 

Olivia Wanless, a third-year electrical engineering student at Kettering, participates in the AutoDrive Challenge. “I have learned about areas that I have never worked with before, and I think that this opportunity will give any students involved a significant leg up when looking for a job after graduation.” 

For Wanless, being part of and studying this technology in these early stages is also about having a sense of history and legacy. “I think that the most exciting part of being involved in this competition, for me personally, is being able to say that I had a hand in this technology that will revolutionize the world as we know it,” she said. “Years from now, I will be able to tell my grandchildren that I helped make those self-driving cars possible.”

Read more articles by Jake Carah.