Personal Rapid Transit …. in Ann Arbor! Part 2 – buildingwashtenaw

Personal Rapid Transit …. in Ann Arbor! Part 2


In Part 1 of examining the development of Personal Rapid Transit …in Ann Arbor, I looked at the work of the Bendix Corporation on Plymouth Road in Ann Arbor with autonomous vehicles and how they directly supported the development of 1970s era PRT systems which are still in use today.

In this post, I would like to look further at the test track Bendix built in Ann Arbor to complete this testing and development.

 COMPUTER CONTROLS VAN: Program analyst Bob Comfort operates controls which guide a driverless Swedish van along a 5,500-foot roadway at the Bendix Corporation’s Transportation Control Laboratory on Plymouth Road. From his seat inside the computer control center he can watch the vehicles as they make their way along the asphalt roadway. Courtesy of the Ann Arbor News/Ann Arbor District Library

One of Bendix’s Ann Arbor offices (now demolished) was located on Plymouth Road on the Northeast side of the City just west of Green Road. Bendix built their approximately $13,500,000 Aviation Systems research laboratories ($126 million today) in 1958 at this location after moving out of their former (and likely temporary) offices in the old Masonic Temple Building on Liberty Street (where the Federal Building now resides).

Bendix Aviation Corporation moves to new Systems Division building on Plymouth Rd, August 1958. Courtesy of Ann Arbor News/Ann Arbor District Library

Here is a good image of the new office building in relation to Plymouth Road and the Water Tower. In 1958 this area was largely undeveloped. The “Old News” Archive of the Ann Arbor District Library has a bunch of other pictures of the new building and it’s very mid-century office interior .

“Bendix’s new Systems Division plant nears completion, June 1958” Courtesy of the Ann Arbor News and the Ann Arbor District Library

A PRT/Driverless transit track was completed in August of 1971 to the south of Bendix’s new office for a (Bendix) quoted cost of $150,000 ($929,000 today) after they began accepting contracts from the Federal Government and prime contractors for systems control technology for a Personal Rapid Transit system.

Courtesy of the Ann Arbor News/Ann Arbor District Libary

The completed track is clearly visible in aerial imagery from the time.

Courtesy of Washtenaw County

The large white structure on the North portion of the track is the Control Building that the Bendix employee in the first photo in this post is sitting in (the photo was taken looking east).

Courtesy of Washtenaw County

Bendix’s investment in Personal Rapid Transit and other driverless technology was sadly short lived. As the Government contracts dried up, so too apparently did Bendix’s interest in the technology. The Ann Arbor News reported in October 1974  (less than four years after the track was built) that Bendix was considering selling their entire 43-acre site on Plymouth Road. In an April 1975 article, grim sounding Bendix management stated “the situation [at the Plymouth Road Offices] will be reviewed every six months” and that “We hope the business picture will stabilize.” In 1983 the University of Michigan bought the Bendix building and acquired the test track with it.

It is not clear if the University ever used the Test Track or just sat on the land for their future use. Imagery from 2010 shows portions of it largely overgrown. The road itself also appears in poor condition with large cracks and joints. The Bendix building itself was torn down around 2006 but the track control building remains.

Courtesy of Washtenaw County

I don’t know if stories about abandoned driverless test tracks can have happy endings  but in an ironic(?) twist or other bit of coincidence, in 2015 U of M built their 16 acre “Mcity” automated and connected vehicle test track directly adjacent to the old Bendix PRT test track.

The new “Mcity” Test Track next to the old Bendix Track (or what is left of it) Courtesy of Washtenaw County

It is certainly unique that a new generation of automated vehicle technology is being tested in largely the same place where Bendix was testing the same thing 45 years ago. Hopefully this new track is in use for more than four years!