Snyder: Willow Run ‘best place’ to test driverless cars

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Gov. Rick Snyder said Tuesday he is working with Michigan’s congressional delegation to create a center for the testing and development of autonomous cars in Washtenaw County.

It’s a bid to keep Michigan the auto capital of the world as the industry turns more toward connected and autonomous vehicles.

The former Willow Run General Motors powertrain plant in Ypsilanti Township would become a development and testing site for autonomous vehicles called the American Center for Mobility, the first facility of its kind in America that brings together government, industry and academia on the technology.

“We are still the heart and soul of the auto industry. Make no mistake about that,” he said during his annual State of the State speech.

Snyder views Willow Run as the place where the United States would set standards for connected and autonomous vehicles.

Willow Run “would be the world’s best place to test connected vehicles, whether autonomous or connected,” he said.

Last year, the federal Economic Development Administration awarded a $247,000 grant for helping to plan for the center at the 330-acre site.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, the Dearborn Democrat whose district includes the Willow Run site, said the project is one of her top priorities.

“We want to make sure that we’re developing the technology of the future here in Michigan, and connected and automated vehicles have the potential to revolutionize transportation over the next decade,” Dingell said Tuesday.

“This investment shows that the state will continue to lead the way in research, development and deployment of these new technologies, and we will continue to work with leaders in both state and federal government, the auto industry, the University of Michigan, and other stakeholders to move this project forward.”

Snyder said last week that there’s now “more interest” in this idea, especially in light of the success of M-City, a 32-acre closed-course testing facility in Ann Arbor created in partnership with the University of Michigan.

“The question is if that works great for research, is there something more that can be done on the development side?” Snyder told The Detroit News.

“There is a need for a place to really be available to help set (autonomous vehicle) standards and for testing to make sure people are in compliance with the standards. That would be nice to have in Michigan.”

“We’re excited about the prospects of being able to make some investments there in terms of some of the infrastructure and some of the planning,” said Jay Williams, administrator of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration, in an interview last week on the floor of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

“Over the next decade or in our lifetimes, autonomous vehicles will become the standard, and it starts with investments in places like Willow Run. As Detroit has served for the cradle of the automotive industry 100 years ago, it’s a purposeful design to make sure that Detroit is positioned for the autonomous vehicle revolution that is underway as we speak.”