Howes: Willow Run could change how world moves again

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

Ypsilanti Township — Henry Ford would have approved.

Seventy-four years after Ford Motor Co. completed construction of its Willow Run plant to build B-24 Liberator bombers to help win World War II, this empty, windswept site is preparing its next chapter in the transportation revolution ol’ Henry’s Model T sparked a century ago.

Gov. Rick Snyder, left, shakes hands with American Center for Mobility President/CEO John Maddox after they toss a little dirt at the groundbreaking.

Planners of the American Center for Mobility, a public-private partnership, want to transform the industrial site into a global hub for testing, validating and certifying connected and self-driving cars. It’s an audacious, bipartisan play that seeks to leverage Michigan’s deep engineering talent and industrial heft into a next-generation mobility leader.

This move would have seemed impossible before the clarifying days of 2008 and 2009. The re-imagination of Willow Run as a test bed for the coming mobility revolution is just the latest in a string of reinventions this town could be forgiven for thinking it would never see amid continuing economic calamity. But it is.

Snyder to sign autonomous car bills into law

Think about what Detroit, its auto industry, the state itself have witnessed — and executed — since that financial collapse: A resurgent auto industry powered by its home market. A financially restructured city of Detroit. Some $5 billion in private investment for downtown Detroit. Recapitalized cultural institutions, corporate relocations, demand for urban housing, and more, all of it far removed from the plywood store windows that greeted visitors for Super Bowl XL.

The latest in this arc of historic redemption is Willow Run, a 336-acre patch that otherwise would be devilishly hard to redevelop because of its scale and environmental concerns. It defined the “Arsenal of Democracy” that helped win the deadliest war the world has ever seen, and it’s being repurposed to deliver the technological transformation promising to change how the world moves.

“We’ve come so far,” Gov. Rick Snyder told a group of business and political leaders gathered Monday to mark the beginning of work on the center, set to open by next December. “We’re at the top. This is about the transformation of the auto industry into the mobility industry. We should not look at this with fear. We are at the forefront of the transformation of society.”

Maybe so. Transformation does not come without disruption — a brutal fact Willow Run, among so many auto communities, learned over decades of post-war success, mistaken entitlement and inevitable decline. The coming mobility wave is likely to be no different.

Technologies refined along Willow Run’s triple overpasses and its 700-foot curved tunnel, through the myriad four-season weather conditions Michigan can impose, are expected to change the way people and goods move. They’re likely to displace people (some people, anyway) who drive trucks and delivery vans, taxi cabs and buses, even their own cars.

Mobility promises to restore independent movement to the young and the old; to reshape the retail market for cars and trucks, especially in urban areas; to alter the ownership chain of monthly payments and maintenance; to shuffle the insurance industry and its definition of liability; to create whole new industries and revenue streams.

“In the past, technologies have always been disruptive,” U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, said in an interview. “Today what’s different is the pace of change has accelerated rapidly.”

Engineers and scientists, coders and the innovators behind the mobility push ask whether they “can do this,” he adds. The answers pose challenges for business leaders and politicians as the disrupted — from lower-skilled workers replaced by technology to higher-skilled professionals challenged by the artificial intelligence embedded in mobility and other technologies — inevitably push back.

The fervor animating this year’s campaigns of both Donald Trump on the right and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders on the left underscore the anxiety associated with economic uncertainty, with the quickening pace of change, especially the human costs of those left behind. Cool as it may sound, mobility is likely to be no different.

“There are risks in change,” Lt. Gov. Brian Calley said in an interview. “But there are also opportunities. It’s incumbent on us to minimize the risks and maximize the opportunities. We live in an age where people have to reinvent themselves. That’s an attitude I see already here in Michigan.”

That’s debatable. Monday’s celebratory ground-breaking intentionally obscured the inconvenient fact that for all the technical talent embedded in Michigan’s auto industry and academic institutions, the state’s educational attainment is slipping further behind its peers. Long term, that’s a loser.

And the prevailing culture looks more comfortable peering into the rearview mirror to find scapegoats than it does looking to the challenges of the future — many of which must be met with different skills and an understanding that the good ol’ days of Willow Run and Henry Ford and the Arsenal of Democracy are important parts of history. But they’re history, nonetheless.

(313) 222-2106

Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.