Michigan Breaks Ground on Autonomous-Vehicle Test Facility

american center for mobility ypsilanti willow run michigan autonomous

american center for mobility ypsilanti willow run michigan autonomous

On the dilapidated grounds of a former factory best known for powering the Arsenal of Democracy during World War II, Michigan officials have moved one step closer to building a national proving ground for connected and autonomous vehicles.

At a groundbreaking ceremony for the nonprofit American Center for Mobility (ACM), government leaders joined company leaders at the 335-acre site at Willow Run, about 30 miles west of Detroit, where they hope legacy automotive manufacturers and tech companies alike will work to test and validate future transportation systems.

A portion of the facility dedicated to highway-style testing of self-driving vehicles is expected to open in December 2017. Other portions of the proving ground are to become operational in gradual phases. Parts of the highway loop will incorporate the use of public roads, and crews will build a 700-foot curved tunnel as part of the test track.

Automakers are itching to use the facility now, said John Maddox, ACM’s CEO. He said companies want to test autonomous vehicles that are now in early stages of development as soon as possible. Maddox claims to have received 45 letters of support from OEMs, major suppliers, and others who are interested in using the facility.

“We’re facing very tough competition from a number of Asian countries making substantial investments.”
– Senator Gary Peters

Ford, General Motors, and Toyota have expressed particular enthusiasm for the project, he said during remarks at the groundbreaking, which took place on the property of the former Willow Run Assembly Plant. So far, the engineering group SAE International has signed a memorandum of understanding to use the facility in hopes of creating and evaluating standards for new transportation technology.

“We’re talking with other standards bodies, too,” Maddox said. “We really want to accelerate standards. If you’re an automotive nerd, you know that standards are critical. We’re working on them not just for vehicles, but for infrastructure.”

With construction underway, Maddox and others will turn to determining exactly how future users will want to collect data from the sensors and cameras installed in the infrastructure. They’ll also need to figure out how much they want to share with other manufacturers and how much will remain proprietary.

autonomous test facility michigan willow run

autonomous test facility michigan willow run

Sharing data might be key for car companies. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently urged autonomous-vehicle developers to share such data to shorten learning curves and improve the overall safety of the self-driving fleet.

“How they want to use that sensor data and correlate it to what they test will be one question,” said Tony Gioutsos, an executive with TASS International, which will handle data management at ACM. “In how they want to share it, or not, we’re starting to survey potential users and lay that framework. That’s the next step.”

Longer-term plans at the facility include building a national cybersecurity research center, where the defenses of connected cars and smart infrastructure such as traffic lights could be tested and fortified. Examining the role of dedicated short-range communications and future 5G networks will be part of those plans. While the actual laboratory remains years away, ACM isn’t wasting time getting started. Next week, company leaders will host a workshop aimed at beginning the planning for that portion of the facility.

american center for mobility willow run michigan autonomous test

american center for mobility willow run michigan autonomous test

These are the same grounds where Rosie the Riveter and her colleagues once cranked out B-24 bombers at the rate of a plane per hour for the war effort. Michigan’s government leaders hope the facility will ensure the state stays relevant in the coming decades, as the auto industry morphs from producing vehicles for traditional owners and human operators into a more comprehensive mobility provider.

In a rare show of bipartisan cohesion, politicians took turns extolling the urgent need for such a facility to keep tech-centered and engineering jobs in Michigan.

  • Michigan Broadens Its Ambitions for Autonomous-Vehicle Proving Ground
  • Federal Government Releases New Autonomous-Vehicle Policy
  • Data Sharing and Gathering Will Be Key for Safe Self-Driving Cars

“We’re facing very tough competition from a number of Asian countries making substantial investments,” said U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, a co-founder of the Senate’s Smart Transportation Caucus, speaking about testing facilities in China, Japan, and South Korea.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder noted that the cyclical nature of the automotive industry has hurt the state’s fortunes in the past. Although the industry is coming off a year of record sales, that shouldn’t necessarily be cause for celebration, he said. “In the past, I think we’d take that for granted.

“When you’re at the top, you don’t get complacent. You need to make sure you’re out there leading for the next generation, and that’s what we’re doing.”