$1 for 3 months. Save 97%.
$1 for 3 months. Save 97%.

Colleges partner with Willow Run mobility center

Ian Thibodeau
The Detroit News

Ypsilanti — Leadership at the American Center for Mobility here plans to cultivate high-tech talent from 15 Michigan colleges and universities through a partnership aimed at preparing and retaining new engineers to work on the vehicles of the future.

The self-driving research site at Ypsilanti’s Willow Run will open in December, President and CEO of the center, John Maddox, said. Maddox and Gov. Rick Snyder want to make sure local students graduating from the state’s colleges and universities are ready to work on the high-tech, high-demand connected and automated technology that will be developed, prototyped and tested by automakers and suppliers on the 500-acre facility

“This is such an incredible educational opportunity for them,” Maddox said. “There is a draw. There is a need from the industry right now. Industry tells us very clearly that they need a certain skill set, and it doesn’t really fit into an existing convenient degree. It’s across multiple areas.”

Maddox, Snyder and representatives from the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, Michigan Tech, University of Detroit Mercy, Grand Valley State University and Wayne State University, among others, signed a memorandum of understanding to form the academic consortium at the American Center for Mobility.

The partnership will lead to training, courses, recruitment, internships, co-ops and work-study programs. Maddox said the center received applications from all over the U.S. for three summer internship spaces this past summer. That in part prompted the consortium.

“It’s about helping the next generation not just learn a new skill, but continually be retrained through their careers,” Snyder said. “It’s jobs. As we create these opportunities, particularly helping young people understand where these careers are, it’s only going to be better to keep them here and have them raise their families here.”

Maddox said the first phase of what’s likely to be a multi-phase build-out at the Willow Run site will be ready by December. The build is over half done, and will include a highway loop, bridges, tunnels and a number of other simulations that automakers and suppliers might not have at their disposal. Companies and universities will be able to rent garages and portions of the test facility to privately test machines and systems.

The first two phases will cost about $130 million, but that number will likely increase as the center finds more things to add on. Currently, Maddox has $101 million raised through private and public funding.

Federal and state officials have said that he project is vital to keeping the U.S. competitive in the future of automotive innovation. In April, the Michigan Strategic Fund approved $15 million in state funding. The state of Michigan had previously pledged $20 million in aid.

The U.S. Department of Transportation in January designated 10 proving grounds for developing and testing self-driving cars, including Willow Run — site of the bomber plant Henry Ford built in the early days of World War II that came to symbolize the “Arsenal of Democracy.”

Ford Motor Co. and Toyota Motor North America were the first auto sponsors to donate. Those companies followed AT&T as corporate sponsors.

The second part of phase one will start in April, Maddox said. He and his team are also designing phase two, which will replicate a large city with buildings and other things found in Manhattan, Washington and Detroit.

Later on, Maddox said users will be able to simulate weather conditions like fog and snow inside a long tunnel. That won’t debut in phase one. But this winter, the technicians will be able to simulate slick surfaces like ice on the track.

“We always will be adding to this facility. It’s really purpose-built, specifically designed for automated vehicle testing,” Maddox said. “Yes, they all have large faculties, but those are your grandfather’s test tracks. They’re about durability, they’re about speed, they’re about reliability. This is a different thing. Very few of them have a facility where they can put the car through its paces in something that simulates the real world.”

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau