Foxconn Technology Group’s plans for the use of driverless vehicles to move thousands of workers a day at its sprawling campus in Racine County, Wisc., highlights the growing attractiveness of a technology that could shape the future of transportation.
The Taiwan-based company, which is planning to construct a $10 billion manufacturing plant in Mount Pleasant, has told Wisconsin officials that it wants roads with technological innovations, including those that can ferry workers and cargo in autonomous vehicles to its facilities east of I-94.
Wisconsin officials previously acknowledged Foxconn’s interest in seeing such lanes on I-94 for driverless vehicles to move supplies between Milwaukee’s Mitchell International Airport and the factory.
The company also envisions the use of such vehicles close to the plant to ease commuting pressures.
The use of autonomous vehicles would be a first for Wisconsin as cities and major corporations are beginning to experiment with the technology.
In September, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued new guidelines for companies developing self-driving vehicles that removed waiting periods for testing and roll-outs. The guidelines, however, drew criticism from consumer groups with safety concerns who said the Trump administration was siding too much with industry groups.
Major companies are moving quickly into the technology, including General Motors and Google’s parent, Alphabet Inc. Self-driving vehicles are expected to be used for an array of purposes, including trucking and on-demand car services. The vehicles are guided with radar, global positioning systems and on-board cameras.
In Wisconsin, the state Department of Transportation said in documents that it is “strongly committed” to making upgrades on key roads by 2021 to accommodate self-driving vehicles, at least near the plant.
The agency did not respond to requests to comment on this story.
On a separate front, experts in the state are evaluating the technology and its legal implications under a steering committee appointed by Gov. Scott Walker in May.
In January, the U.S. Department of Transportation named the University of Wisconsin-Madison as one of 10 “proving grounds,” or pilot sites, across the country designed to encourage testing, information sharing and research involving automated vehicle technologies.
Foxconn is planning to construct a plant to produce ultra-high-definition liquid-crystal display panels. The plant could employ as many as 13,000 people with facilities covering an estimated 22 million square feet — by far the largest industrial project in the state’s history.
That poses potential logistical issues — both for the site of the plant in a rural area of Racine County and the freeway system south of Milwaukee in Racine and Kenosha counties. In that area, congestion during peak periods is already a problem and is projected by state planners to worsen in the coming years due to Foxconn and other pressures.
Foxconn intends to employ driverless vehicles to move an estimated 4,000 employees per shift to their jobs at the company’s plant, according to state DOT documents.
Workers at the plant would park their cars in lots west of I-94, and then be driven a mile or two to Foxconn’s campus along two roads that are slated for major upgrades — Braun Road and Highway KR, DOT documents show.
The company also plans to use autonomous vehicles to move freight on the two roads. Details on plans for driverless vehicles, other technological upgrades and road upgrades were included in the state’s Oct. 31 application for $246.2 million from the U.S. Department of Transportation.
A public session on the upgrades will be held Thursday between 3 and 7 p.m. at the Mount Pleasant Village Hall.
The state’s funding request to federal transportation officials outlined upgrades on the north-south corridor of I-94.
The money would also be used to rebuild and widen the freeway over 19 miles from near College Ave. in Milwaukee County to Highway 142 in Kenosha County.
The upgrades near the plant will include expansion of Braun Road to six lanes and the widening of Highway KR to eight lanes by 2020. Both are two-lane roads.
Both roads would be upgraded with infrastructure to support so-called connected and automated vehicles — also known as CAV. Connected technology allows vehicles to communicate with roadway infrastructure such as traffic lights. “Automated” technology allows for self-driving vehicles.
The state DOT said it also plans to invest state money in the high-tech upgrades, in addition to any funding from the federal government.
The use of driverless vehicles to carry employees was first reported by the Milwaukee Business Journal.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported on Nov. 13 that state highway planners are exploring the use of special lanes for driverless vehicles on I-94 — an idea that Foxconn executives pitched to state officials.
State officials plan to ask for federal funding in a future grant application to accommodate autonomous vehicles and other technology on I-94 between the airport and Highway KR, documents show.
“My impression is that Foxconn’s interests are definitely larger than just setting up a plant,” said Peter Rafferty, a researcher in the Traffic Operations and Safety Laboratory at UW’s College of Engineering.
“Smart cities, new mobility options, and connected and shared vehicles are ideas they are thinking about,” Rafferty said. “They’re asking ‘how can we bring this all together?’ ”
He envisions Foxconn using vehicles that would move a dozen or so employees at a time. While accidents involving autonomous vehicles have attracted headlines, Rafferty said the advantage of such vehicles is safety, especially on dedicated routes with a constant ebb and flow of users.
“With a collection of sensors, they are looking 360 degrees all of the time,” Rafferty said.
“It’s an important step in the right direction.”
Foxconn describes itself as the largest contract manufacturer in the world and is a key supplier to major technology companies such as California-based Apple and its iPhone products.
But Foxconn has said the plant in Mount Pleasant will be used to build screen devices for other products ranging from the latest-generation televisions to self-driving cars.
Rafferty is a member of Walker’s steering committee, which is studying the issue of autonomous vehicles. It’s been asked to address questions like these:
What roads could be designated as special corridors? What state regulations now “impede” testing and deployment of cars and trucks that would not need a driver? How should issues such as testing, licensing, traffic regulations, and insurance and liability be addressed?
The committee is expected to submit a final report to Walker by June 30.
UW is bringing together experts from different disciplines to study autonomous driving, Rafferty said.
Last month, a French Navya passenger shuttle made a visit to Madison. At the time, there were plans to put the shuttle through test runs.
But Rafferty said at the last minute the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration held up an exemption that would have allowed the Navya to operate after an accident on Nov. 8 in Las Vegas — where the vehicle made its first run in a short loop downtown.