Willow Run to begin autonomous car testing in December
Ypsilanti — When Michigan wanted to create a facility to help put it at the forefront of testing on autonomous cars, it looked to a site that once pushed the boundaries of technology for airplanes.
The transformation of the historic Willow Run facility, just north of Interstate 94, is in full swing and the American Center for Mobility expects to begin testing in December. What was once Henry Ford’s home for airplane manufacturing during World War II later became a powertrain plant for General Motors.
Now it’s poised to provide automakers, Tier One suppliers and technology companies the chance to develop their technologies before putting them in the hands of the masses. Construction for the nonprofit operation, an arm of Michigan’s Planet M initiative, began in June.
“It’s pretty amazing to think about it – that this whole place was built in 18 months ... conceived, designed and outfitted ... the first modern airport in the United States...,” ACM president and CEO John Maddox said Tuesday, describing the wartime sprint to built the airplane production operation. “We’re trying to channel some of that speed. ...”
Officials with ACM hosted media members Tuesday, offering an update on the work. While test tracks may be available for use Dec. 1, other stages of the development — including offices and simulated downtown areas — will come later.
The project has an estimated price tag of $110 million. On Monday, ACM officials indicated $90 million of that total has been secured, with the bulk coming from Michigan Economic Development Corp. support.
Last month, ACM nabbed its first major automotive partner with a $5 million commitment from Toyota Motor North America and its Research and Development Center in nearby Ann Arbor. The automaker will use ACM’s testing facilities as a closed environment for pursuing autonomous and connected vehicles technology.
“... Not all test miles are created equal,” Gill Pratt, CEO of Toyota’s research center, said in late July. “The road to creating a car as safe, or safer, than a human driver will require billions of test miles including simulation, real-world driving on public roads, and closed-course testing where we can expose our systems to extreme circumstances and conditions. The new ACM ... facility is a significant step forward in this journey and will accelerate our ability to help prevent crashes and save lives.”
U.S. Reps. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, and Bob Latta, R-Ohio, appeared at ACM, touting legislation Dingell is backing in the House of Representatives aimed at promoting autonomous vehicle development.
Dingell and bipartisan supporters describe the measure, labeled the SELF DRIVE Act, as means of allowing “manufacturers to innovate and increase safety on the roads.”
The bill calls for:
■Establishing a Federal Advisory Committee in the National Highway Traffic Advisory Administration to address mobility issues for the disabled, seniors and “underserved” populations.
■Create exemptions to vehicle safety standards to help speed development and testing of autonomous vehicles.