State commits $20M to Willow Run autonomous car testing

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Michigan’s economic development board on Tuesday approved an additional $17 million state investment in a project to transform Willow Run’s one-time World War II bomber plant into a hub for autonomous vehicle testing.

The Michigan Strategic Fund’s total investment of $20 million in the American Center for Mobility will be used toward purchasing land at the site of the former General Motors powertrain plant, designing and constructing a high-speed loop test track.

“We’re getting a lot of attention around the nation and really around the world and that’s really because the state of Michigan is investing in this,” said John Maddox, president and CEO of the American Center for Mobility.

The taxpayer investment in the facility is vital to maintaining Michigan’s stronghold in the development of autonomous vehicles, said Steve Arwood, president and CEO of the Michigan Economic Development Corp.

“Ultimately it’s in the best interest of the state to preserve the future of our automotive industry,” said Arwood, chairman of the Michigan Strategic Fund board.

The American Center for Mobility still needs another $60 million to fully realize a 335-acre test site that would include tunnels, bridges, traffic stops, suburban cul-de-sacs and city streets to test the driverless cars of tomorrow.

The autonomous vehicle nonprofit organization is hoping to attract federal grants and additional private investment for automated driving technology at the Willow Run site, Maddox said.

The Willow Run land is owned by RACER Trust, the entity set up in GM’s 2009 bankruptcy to sell off land left vacant by shuttered auto plants. GM’s powertrain plant on the site closed in 2010, Maddox said.

An entity called the Willow Run Arsenal of Democracy, or WRAD, will purchase the land from RACER Trust, Maddox said.

Arwood and Maddox said the state’s investment in the infrastructure of building and testing autonomous vehicles keeps Michigan competitive with California and foreign countries racing to develop the technology.

“Is it risk-based? Yes. Is it a bigger risk not to do it? Yes,” Arwood said. “... You simply have to put this kind of marker down in these kind of projects in order to get the credibility you need to move forward on any front.”

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Twitter: @ChadLivengood

Detroit News Staff Writer Michael Martinez contributed.