Michigan is competing to be the hub of the automotive industry’s mobility future. Its hopes would get a boost by making the proposed American Center for Mobility, formerly the Willow Run bomber plant in Ypsilanti, a federally designated test site for autonomous vehicles.
Michigan Sens. Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow and Rep. Debbie Dingell have advocated for a competition among various test sites throughout the country to determine which would be designated as a location where federal regulators would collaborate with automakers on reliability and safety measures for the emerging autonomous technology.
It’s something that needs to happen soon, as the race to succeed in this new area isn’t only among domestic auto companies, but also international. China, Japan, Germany and Sweden are also trying to establish testing centers.
But Michigan is the perfect spot. So is Willow Run, which has a storied history that began in World War II. The real “Rosie the Riveter” worked there, and the plant helped Detroit earn its reputation as the “arsenal of democracy.” It later became a General Motors plant.
All the things that make Detroit and the state proverbially unattractive — long winters full of inclement weather and potholes in the roads — are exactly what make it the best place to test a completely new form of technology that will have to navigate those hurdles.
Testing sites are also in development in states like California and Nevada, but Michigan offers a climate that many vehicles will face, and access to the three biggest automakers in the country. It also boasts research and development hubs for foreign companies like Toyota and Hyundai.
Plus the Willow Run site includes complex roadways such as overpasses and bridges.
A federal designation, and the funds to help support it, would only speed progress on the project — a win for both federal regulators eager to further develop guidelines for self-driving cars and for the automakers and technology companies investing in them.
And such a testing center has the unique ability to help save lives. President Barack Obama has thrown an unusual amount of support behind the technology because of its life-saving potential.
The number of U.S. traffic deaths reached 35,092 last year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That’s a 7.2 percent increase over 2014, the largest single-year increase since 1966.
Clearly driver behavior — namely distracted driving caused by texting — is behind the rapid influx of auto deaths, and semi and fully autonomous vehicle technology offers the chance to greatly reduce those numbers.
The first phase of the Willow Run development can be completed with the $20 million the state has allocated. But more funds are needed to include tunnels, bridges, traffic stops, cul-de-sacs and city streets to fully test the vehicles.
Federal funding is essential. A spokesman for Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said the secretary met with Michigan representatives recently to discuss the plans for a national competition. It’s under consideration.
The federal government should move forward with the competition to prove the American Center for Mobility at Willow Run is the most logical site for the work.