Willow Run car-test facility loses federal 'proving ground' status

Keith Laing
The Detroit News
The American Center for Mobility's 500-acre driverless car proving ground at Ypsilanti’s Willow Run includes a 700-foot curved tunnel.

Washington — The American Center for Mobility in Ypsilanti Township is losing its federal designation as a proving ground for self-driving car testing, throwing into question its ability to win money that has been set aside by Congress for autonomous vehicle research and design. 

In a document outlining guidelines for autonomous vehicles released Thursday by the Trump administration, the U.S. Department of Transportation said it is rescinding the designation of the Willow Run facility and nine others that were identified as proving grounds in January 2017. 

Congress in March allocated $20 million that was to be divided among the facilities that received the designation. The funding was part of a pool of $100 million that Congress made available for grants that would be used to fund self-driving testing.

Losing the proving ground designation means the center will have to compete with a broader pool of facilities for the money that Congress has made available for self-driving testing.  

The transportation department said in the self-driving guideline document it "recognizes that given the rapid increase in automated vehicle testing activities in many locations, there is no need for U.S. DOT to favor particular locations or to pick winners and losers."

American Center for Mobility officials vowed the loss of the federal designation "does not alter the course for the future that Michigan and our Center have established. 

"We remain committed to providing a world-class test environment that enables industry and our partners to design, test and bring to life technologies which support solutions for safety, congestion, and climate issues for our world," the center said in a statement. "The programs and facilities that enabled ACM to be selected as one of the 10, of the more than 60 organizations applied to receive the U.S. DOT proving ground designation, remain." 

The Department of Transportation identified the American Center for Mobility that was built on the 355-acre Willow Run site as one of 10 facilities that are being designated as a means of fostering innovations.

Former U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said at the time of the announcement the 10 proving grounds would collectively form a “community of practice” around safe testing and deployment.

“With a primary focus on safety innovation, DOT’s goal is to expand on the good work of proving grounds across the country such as Willow Run," the department said in a statement Thursday. "AV technology is advancing rapidly, as is the number of advanced testing sites. The AV space benefits from new, multi-layered partnerships at more locations, not less.

"Fortunately, the proliferation of new proving grounds and their related investments enable the Department to recognize the results of programs such as the one in Michigan while also enabling new partners as they emerge within the testing community.”


Lawmakers who represent Michigan in Congress vowed to fight to make sure the Willow Run facility still receives the federal money.  

U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, who pushed for the Willow Run site to be recognized by the federal government, said he is "disappointed in the Department of Transportation’s decision to remove the federal designation for the 10 self-driving proving grounds, especially when our international competitors are utilizing national proving grounds.

"Validating self-driving technology requires strong collaboration from a broad range of partners, and these facilities have demonstrated their ability to bring together industry, academia and government stakeholders to advance research and development," Peters said in a statement. "The American Center for Mobility is our country’s premier proving ground for self-driving vehicles, and I will continue to work with [U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao] to ensure that Michigan and ACM continue to be a focus of federal investments to advance these revolutionary technologies.”

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, added: "While it’s extremely disappointing that DOT has decided to rescind the AV proving ground designations, I intend to ensure that they follow Congressional intent on this critically important AV research program.”

The Ypsilanti site is joined by the following facilities in losing the Automated Vehicle Proving Ground designation on Thursday:

■City of Pittsburgh and the Thomas D. Larson Pennsylvania Transportation Institute

■Texas AV Proving Grounds Partnership

■U.S. Army Aberdeen Test Center

■Contra Costa Transportation Authority and GoMentum Station

■San Diego Association of Governments

■Iowa City Area Development Group

■University of Wisconsin-Madison

■Central Florida Automated Vehicle Partners

■North Carolina Turnpike Authority


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Twitter: @Keith_Laing