Automotive Research Center receives $100 million from U.S. Army

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Space exploration, disaster relief and military operations are just a few of the applications for the research into autonomous ground vehicles conducted under the Automotive Research Center’s new five-year, $100 million agreement with the U.S. Army. 

Founded in 1994, the ARC is the primary research partner for the U.S. Army’s Ground Vehicle Systems Center in Warren. ARC is led by the University and works alongside 13 other universities, 84 faculty members, 34 companies and four government agencies to form a bridge between the military, industry and academia. The ARC is housed in the College of Engineering. 

Every five years, the ARC undergoes a strategic planning review where it proposes ideas and receives funding from the government. The last contract from 2019 had a $50 million cap. This year, the amount doubled. According to ARC Director Bogdan Epureanu, U-M Roger L. McCarthy professor of mechanical engineering, the increase arises from the urgency and challenges of developing autonomous systems.

“We said, ‘Look, there are resources, there is interest, there is a need and we have the expertise to do it,’ ” Epureanu said. “We just need to have a higher ceiling for the contract.” 

ARC issues an annual call for research proposals from researchers at its partner schools. In an interview with The Michigan Daily, ARC Chief Scientist Tulga Ersal, U-M associate professor of mechanical engineering, said GVSC engineers review the ideas, then ARC’s Executive Committee decides which projects to pursue and how much funding from the $100 million budget they require. 

“This way, we make sure that we are always aligned with GVCS’ basic research needs,” Ersal said. “Every year we can adjust where we want to put the focus on.” 

The collaboration between ARC and GVCS extends into the research process. ARC projects have a quad structure composed of a student, a faculty principle investigator, a GVSC representative and an industry member, which allows ARC to pursue dual-use technology for both military and commercial applications.

Over the last five years, ARC’s priority has been to create autonomous vehicles that rely less on human drivers and more on algorithms that enable them to make decisions. Ersal said technological developments in artificial intelligence have turned self-driving cars into an exciting issue. 

“We want these vehicles to act as teammates for the soldiers and protect the soldiers,” Ersal said. “If it’s too dangerous to send a manned vehicle somewhere, can we send an unmanned vehicle that can navigate all by itself and keep the soldiers out of harm’s way? That’s the key advantage that we’re trying to enable.” 

Ground vehicle systems have a more expansive definition compared to cars that mainly transport people or goods. According to Epureanu, they can carry out reconnaissance, remove debris and deploy local communication hubs.

“We are just at the beginning and it’s an enormous challenge,” Epureanu said. “This renewed contract and continuing engagement with our sponsor will allow us to dig deeper and achieve the goals for bringing new autonomous technologies into more general use.”

Self-driving car companies develop their technology by testing them on the road. Since the off-road scenarios applicable to the U.S. Army are difficult, time-consuming and expensive to recreate, ARC uses modeling and simulation.

“Mathematical models capture the behavior of a system, which you can then use to create digital representations of the systems,” Ersal said. “If we can do it reliably, with mathematical models in simulation, that can have a significant impact on the accelerated development of these technologies.”

Rackham student James Baxter, ARC graduate research assistant, said he is working on off-road autonomy on challenging slopes, with potential applications in creating supply routes or collecting samples on Mars or the moon. 

“We’re actually talking with some people from Northrop Grumman and figuring out, as I’m doing the research, how I make it more closely aligned with what the industry needs — which I think is really interesting,” Baxter said. 

Baxter works with both digital simulations and physical experiments. ARC has two customized off-road vehicles supplied by Polaris Government & Defense, based on the MRZR model and equipped with sensors. 

“There’s a location about an hour west of here called the Bundy Hill,” Baxter said. “We take our self-driving ATV on a day where nobody else is in there, and we drive it around to perform the experiments.”

Epureanu said future plans for the research include a decision by ARC’s industry partners on how to implement their findings in military or commercial vehicle designs.

“One of the most challenging things is to see this direct connection between an algorithm and its application,” Epureanu said. “However, it does occur, and it’s very rewarding when it happens.”

Daily Staff Reporter Emily Sun can be reached at emisun@umich.edu.

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