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State approves $15M more for Willow Run autonomous site

Ian Thibodeau
The Detroit News

The self-driving car testing site at Willow Run moved a step closer Tuesday to its goal of $80 million after the Michigan Strategic Fund approved $15 million in state funding.

The state of Michigan previously pledged $20 million in aid for the American Center for Mobility, the soon-to-open test facility in Ypsilanti Township. With a $15 million loan approved by Michigan Economic Development Corp. last week, that brings the state’s total investment to $50 million.

The nonprofit needs $80 million to fully outfit the 335-acre test facility, which CEO John Maddox intends to outfit with tunnels, bridges, traffic stops, city streets and other simulations to test driverless vehicles. The first round of state aid last year covered startup costs, purchase of the land, site design preparation and construction for high-speed testing, among other things.

The money approved Tuesday by the Strategic Fund board is needed to advance the project and complete the first phase of construction, according to a briefing memo.

“Additional investments in China, Korea, and the U.K. have made it imperative to continue to support (the American Center for Mobility) in its efforts to begin the construction build-out and to succeed with the Project,” read the memo.

Jody DePree Vanderwel, a Strategic Fund board member, appeared initially skeptical of the investment before ultimately voting in favor. The board approved the measure unanimously.

“Are we putting a ton of money in here to catch up?” she asked. “From a taxpayer perspective, is this a wise investment?”

After a representative of the facility told her that it was, DePree Vanderwel voted to approve the aid.

Maddox told The Detroit News in March that the project had “a ways to go” on funding, though he was encouraged by federal interest in the center. Early in March, a bipartisan group from the Michigan congressional delegation asked the Trump administration to budget $200 million for testing and deploying connected and self-driving vehicle technologies at designated “proving grounds,” such as the American Center for Mobility.

The U.S. Department of Transportation in January designated 10 proving grounds for developing and testing self-driving cars, including Willow Run.

President Donald Trump spoke at the site in March and said his administration would “help” autonomous vehicle developers.

“We need this facility,” Maddox told The News in March. “We need facilities like it.”

ithibodeau@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau

Staff writer Michael Gerstein contributed