Michigan Engineering News

Two students sit in a military vehicle simulation developed by researchers and students inside the University of Michigan-led Automotive Research Center (ARC).

Off-road autonomy: Automotive Research Center funded with $100 million through 2028

As automakers explore self-driving cars, the Army-funded center will figure out how to take the tech off-road through computer modeling and simulation.


Bogdan Epureanu

Bogdan Epureanu portrait

See full bio

Professor of Mechanical Engineering

University of Michigan Automotive Research Center (ARC) Director

The U.S. Army has extended its long-running relationship with the University of Michigan’s Automotive Research Center (ARC), reaching a new five-year, agreement of up to $100 million to boost work on autonomous vehicle (AV) technologies.

This potentially doubles the federal government’s financial investment with ARC since the last agreement, reached in 2019. Following its 1994 launch, the ARC has served as a source of technology and first-in-class modeling and simulation for the Army’s fleet of vehicles—the largest such fleet in the world. 

“We are driving the development of modern mobility systems with our advanced modeling and simulation methods, such as high-fidelity synthetic environments, virtual vehicle prototypes and virtual reality tools for human-autonomy teaming,” said ARC director Bogdan Epureanu, the Roger L. McCarthy Professor of Mechanical Engineering.

A researcher works on a desktop attached to the back of one of the military off-road vehicle model simulators. A floor to ceiling projector screen of a outdoor nature scene with pine trees is wrapped around the walls in front of the vehicle to enhance the simulation experience.
Inside the University of Michigan-led Automotive Research Center (ARC), PhD student Ted Sender works on coding an autonomous vehicle. The vehicle will be fully immersed in a digital environment for experimentation. Photo: Levi Hutmacher/Michigan Engineering

“The cost and time needed to collect data through physical experimentation is prohibitive, and the amount of data needed to enable autonomous operation in off-road, military, emergency or disaster relief scenarios is thousands of times larger than that needed for operation in cities. Cutting-edge modeling and simulation approaches such as the ones developed in the ARC provide a critical solution to this enormous challenge.”

The 14-member collection of universities and institutes, led by U-M, features a total of 84 faculty members, 34 industry partners and four government agencies. It is an ecosystem of research and innovation devoted to transforming ground system technologies. 

“We are particularly proud of the next generation of engineers, who are trained in the ARC and who energize the ongoing revolution in autonomy,” said Epureanu. 

Medium, high angled shot of two researchers, of  Tulga Ersal discussing research papers on the hood of a ARC designed off-road vehicle model.
ARC Director and Roger L. McCarthy Professor of Mechanical Engineering Bogdan Epureanu looks over schematics on one of ARC’s autonomous vehicles with Tulga Ersal, ARC researcher and associate professor of mechanical engineering. Photo: Levi Hutmacher/Michigan Engineering

“The University of Michigan’s Automotive Research Center provides invaluable research and partnership to the U.S. Army that has helped propel the development of next-generation ground vehicle systems and other technologies vital to our men and women in uniform,” said U.S. Senator Gary Peters. “As a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, I have repeatedly fought to ensure the ARC receives the support and resources it needs to continue this important work, and I welcome this news that it will remain an essential partner to the U.S. Army for years to come.”

In the earliest years of the ARC’s partnership, the bulk of its research focused on energy and powertrain issues. That work led to advances such as accurate modeling of combat personnel and their gear to assist with vehicle design, engine designs and performance simulations, blast modeling and simulation techniques, as well as a better understanding of lithium ion battery performance and design. Some of the results cross over from military to civilian applications, such as digital engineering for reliability-based optimization of vehicle safety. Ramdo Solutions offers vehicle design tools based on technology developed at ARC.

PhD student James Baxter sits in an ARC simulator that sits several feet off the ground held by four metal rods, and consists of of a large screen displaying outdoor scenery, hand controls, and a passenger seat.
PhD student James Baxter uses an ARC simulator to test different aspects of autonomous vehicles. Photo: Levi Hutmacher / Michigan Engineering

In recent years, ARC’s focus has shifted toward autonomous technologies that have become increasingly important to the military and beyond.

“The ARC is the Army’s Center of Excellence in Modeling and Simulation,” said David Gorsich, Army Chief Scientist for Ground Vehicles. “The research it conducts is crucial to developing the next generation of digital engineering tools to be used by government and industry.   

“Using the latest digital engineering tools allows the Army community to design and develop advanced vehicle systems quickly and efficiently, bringing modern capabilities to our soldiers. These modern ground vehicles are more complex than ever before, requiring modern analysis and design tools. They are fuel-efficient, survivable, reliable, semi-autonomous and software-intensive systems. These characteristics reduce our logistical burden while increasing operational effectiveness.”

The ARC brings together researchers working in engineering, machine learning, human factors and social behavior. And it fits within U-M’s broader mission of exploring the future of mobility—from autonomous and connected vehicle technology to battery research for electric vehicles.

Participating institutions include: the University of Iowa; Wayne State University; Clemson University; Oakland University; Virginia Tech; Michigan Technological University; Mississippi State University; the University of Alabama at Birmingham; the University of California, Irvine; George Mason University; Central Michigan University; Michigan State University and Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

Epureanu is also an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and a professor of mechanical engineering and of electrical engineering and computer science.

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James Lynch

Research News & Feature Writer