GM and Michigan Tech: Partners for Automotive Progress

By Jennifer Donovan | Published

General Motors needed more electrical and computer engineers. Michigan Technological University’s newly established Automotive Computing Enterprise (ACE) needed a test vehicle. It was a match made in heaven.

The General Motors Foundation donated a fully loaded 2007 Chevy Suburban with a navigation system, touch screen, passenger DVD player and rear camera. Michigan Tech Enterprise Coordinator Rick Berkey calls it “the perfect sandbox for ACE.” Matt Rose, a second-year student in electrical and computer engineering, joined GM for a summer/fall co-op program, and ACE was on its way to creating the future of automotive computing.

Rose and classmate Max Leason are founders of ACE. They discovered during their freshman year that both were interested in cars and the computer systems that govern so much of their behavior today. “Carputers,” Rose and Leason call them.

Michigan Tech’s emphasis on hands-on, discovery-based learning inspired them to start an Enterprise to develop new ways to use “carputers” to make cars more responsive to drivers’ individual needs and preferences.

But to take their work out of the realm of theory, they needed a computerized vehicle to modify. GM provided not only the Suburban, valued at more than $30,000, but also an additional $20,000 in start-up funding and regular access to the advice of Will Poirier and Chris Winegarden, computer systems engineers at GM.

Poirier and Winegarden both are Michigan Tech alumni. Poirier, GM’s information systems manager, is the company’s lead recruiter at Michigan Tech. Winegarden is a lead design systems engineer and a member of GM’s Michigan Tech recruiting team.

“GM recognizes the need to fund and support projects that push the envelope of technology,” Poirier explained. “We believe that our support of ACE will develop an awareness of the complexities and challenges related to the automotive application of electrical engineering. It will also strengthen the relationship between GM and the electrical engineering department at Michigan Tech and prepare students for meaningful careers in the automotive industry.”

ACE started life under the umbrella of the existing Blue Marble Security Enterprise, but it already has 11 members and hopes to launch out on its own in fall 2008.

ACE’s enterprising students work in two teams. One is developing a touch-screen in the center of the dashboard to provide access to navigation and media systems. The second team is working on a customizable LCD instrument panel that would enable the driver to change the color, theme, location and types of gauges displayed on the instrument panel.

Future projects include vehicle-to-vehicle communication, voice-activated navigation and reworking other ways that drivers interface with their car.

ACE is offering the student carputer enthusiasts an experience no classroom could provide, Rose said. “We’re taking our ideas from thought to reality in a realistic business environment that is still a more forgiving atmosphere than a corporate setting,” he explained.

ACE will give benefit both GM and the students at Michigan Tech, said Poirier. “The ACE project team will gain valuable experience in project planning, project management, technical implementation, budgeting and all other aspects of a ground-up development project,” he explained. “The real-world experience of this Enterprise will allow students to explore innovative technologies, including sophisticated control-loop theories, and will result in solutions that are transportable directly to our floor.”

Rose and Leason both hope to work in the automotive industry when they finish school. “It’s very dynamic field, especially with today’s green movement,” Leason said.

Their faculty advisor, Associate Professor John Lukowski, calls ACE “a springboard to employment. “This kind of interaction with industry is invaluable,” he said. “Companies are looking for leadership and experience, so this is a great way to leap into that first position.”

GM’s support of ACE is just part of a significant investment in Michigan Tech. This year alone, the GM Foundation is providing $175,000 in support of educational programs across campus, including Senior Design projects, the YES! Expo to attract middle and high school students to science and engineering fields and the Keweenaw Research Center (KRC).

The automaker recently donated another vehicle, a 2007 extended-cab four-wheel drive pickup valued at more than $40,000 to the KRC. “It is a unique vehicle of a type we didn’t have,” said KRC Director Jay Meldrum.

The pickup will be used as a support vehicle for the KRC’s 500-acre test course. It will also be used in the KRC’s winter driving school, a popular public program originally created with GM’s help, as a research project to compare front-wheel drive, rear-wheel drive, four-wheel drive and anti-lock brakes in winter driving conditions.

Over the years, GM has donated more than a dozen vehicles to the KRC.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 54 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.