Willow Run driverless car test site names CEO, board

Michael Martinez
The Detroit News

The site where Rosie the Riveters once assembled B-24 Liberators for the Allies during World War II will soon become a test site for the future of transportation.

State leaders on Friday announced the appointment of a CEO and board of directors for The American Center for Mobility, a proposed 335-acre driverless car proving grounds at the former Willow Run bomber plant in Ypsilanti. John Maddox, who serves as assistant director of a group that runs the state’s other driverless car test site, MCity, was named CEO.

“Henry Ford was the first innovator to make an airplane on an assembly line and did something people thought was impossible to do,” Maddox said in an interview. “He created a lot of innovations. We’re going to be doing that again for the next 100 years by leveraging connected and autonomous technology to make our transportation system safer.”

Gov. Rick Snyder announced the Willow Run project in January during his annual State of the State address, saying it’s “the world’s best place” to test connected and autonomous cars. The sprawling location is set to become an advanced automotive testing and product development center that focuses on testing, verification and certification of connected and automated vehicles. The state of Michigan is expected to provide $20 million through the Michigan Strategic Fund, with a seed grant to begin operations.

Maddox said the organization will spend the next year completing its due diligence on acquiring the property before any construction will take place. He said it’s too early to comment on a potential opening date. The property is owned by RACER (Revitalizing Auto Communities Environmental Response) Trust, an organization that handles the properties abandoned by General Motors Co. during its bankruptcy.

The site will feature a number of test environments, including an urban/downtown area with building facades to simulate city driving; a highway-speed loop with merging, lane changing, cloverleaf-shaped on-ramps and other features similar to I-94 to simulate high-speed driving; a rural area with unmarked gravel roads; a residential/suburban area to simulate a housing development with homes, garages and pedestrians; and a commercial environment to simulate a strip mall parking lot.

The site will be separate and adjacent to the Yankee Air Museum, which recently acquired a 144,000-square-foot portion of the plant to rebuilt its historical warplane museum, which was destroyed by a fire.

Maddox has extensive experience with the U.S. Department of Transportation and in the auto industry. He headed the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s connected vehicle, automated vehicle, cybersecurity and distraction programs, and has worked at Ford Motor Co. and Volkswagen. He’ll take over as CEO immediately, but will retain a partial appointment with the University of Michigan Mobility Transformation Center.

The organization on Friday also named a board of directors that includes Doug Rothwell, president and CEO of Business Leaders for Michigan; Paul Krutko, president and CEO of Ann Arbor SPARK; Jon Kinsey, assistant vice president for research at U-M; and U-M Mobility Transformation Center Director Huei Peng.

The test site is a joint initiative among the state of Michigan, including the Michigan Department of Transportation and Michigan Economic Development Corp., the University of Michigan, Business Leaders for Michigan and Ann Arbor SPARK. The center also will organize auto industry and community advisory boards at a later date.

Proponents say the site’s hundreds of acres will allow for every conceivable driving condition to be simulated. When coupled with Ann Arbor’s 35-acre MCity, the two test sites put the Great Lakes State at the forefront of autonomous testing.

“The American Center for Mobility solidifies Michigan as the premiere place in the world to develop and implement transportation mobility solutions,” Rothwell said in a statement. “Now that we've hired a great leader to run it, we can focus on lining up tenants and moving dirt.”


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