Leading Auto Supplier Expanding Testing Facility as Automakers Ramp Up Autonomous Efforts

John Clark, president of the North American sales division of Aisin World Corp. of America
John Clark, president of the North American sales division of Aisin World Corp. of America

With the increasingly active development of autonomous vehicles, one of the world’s largest automotive parts and systems suppliers is not just taking note of that activity, but taking steps to expand its sprawling test facility near the heart of the world’s best known automotive development community.

The company is Aisin Group, the world’s seventh largest supplier, and while the firm is headquartered in Japan and has corporate linkages to Toyota are well known, it continues to build out its capabilities throughout the U.S. and beyond.

It has more than two dozen plants in North America, their location typically aligned geographically with customer plants where their parts and systems are destined.

In the automotive industry, the process of seeing those products incorporated in any number of vehicles includes “proving” their mettle, and that’s where Aisin’s Fowlerville Proving Ground comes into play.

Formally known as FT Techno of America, the Fowlerville Proving Ground is located on 950 acres near the Michigan town for which it’s named, about an hour’s drive from Detroit Metro Airport.

Complete with a labyrinth of roads—a four-lane straightaway and a two-lane oval track included—Fowlerville also has special surface roads that help automakers and their suppliers test for ride comfort, as well as noise, vibration and harshness (NVH in the language of the auto industry) on different grades of ascent and descent.

There is also private office and garage space with a fully equipped machine shop at the Fowlerville facility.

The company has already approved designs for a 16-acre slice of the facility for testing components and systems related to autonomous vehicles, says John Clark, president of the North American sales division of Aisin World Corp. of America.

Clark spoke to Corp! magazine at the Press Preview for the 2018 North American International Auto Show, where he outlined how demand from customers from around the world led to the expansion of the Fowlerville facility.

“We already have many customers who have told us they are ready to book time and space with us, as soon as it is complete,” he said.

Clark said that could be as early as October, with the timing dependent on how soon equipment can get started on the paving needed.

Multiple customers, and not just those who have corporate linkages to Aisin and Toyota, are already using the Fowlerville Proving Ground, a fact that has much to do with Aisin’s understanding of (and respect for) the need for high levels of confidentiality.

Customers from multiple automakers, Clark said, have separate, sealed-off sections of the testing grounds, including offices where there is separate Wi-Fi and services have seclusion and confidentiality as their top priority.

When it comes to autonomous vehicle testing, one of the practical challenges for automakers who are busy developing systems, is the “transition” phase for a vehicle—a scenario where a human begins to drive, hands control over to the vehicle and then, at some point, takes control again.

“It’s those transitions, the mergers, that automakers have to be fastidious about in their testing regimen,” said Clark. “And that’s where this area of the Fowlerville facility will shine.”

Clark said Michigan Governor Rick Snyder has been briefed on Aisin’s plans for adding new capabilities at Fowlerville.

“We wanted to make it clear that our facility shouldn’t be seen as a competitor to what is going on at Mcity [a purpose-built facility being operated through the University of Michigan],” said Clark. “What we’re doing is complementary to that effort and together, both strengthen the industry and meet a specific need.”

Clark said Snyder was pleased and supportive of Aisin’s plans.

It would appear that the company’s expansion of Fowlerville—and there’s lots of land for further development—is a significant signal that the industry is more than a little serious about the future of autonomous driving.

“We are ready to do our part in helping automakers deliver what the driving public needs and wants, with a focus on safety, reliability and innovation,” said Clark.