American Center for Mobility in Michigan Loses Federal Proving Ground Designation

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【Summary】The American Center for Mobility, also known as Willow Run in Ypsilanti Township in Ypsilanti, Mich., has lost its federal designation as a proving ground for autonomous-vehicle testing. So have nine other locations across the country.

Original Vineeth Joel Patel    Nov 19, 2018 9:30 AM PT
American Center for Mobility in Michigan Loses Federal Proving Ground Designation

As anyone that's a fan of things on four wheels knows, Michigan has a rich history with the automobile. While the Big Three and numerous parts manufacturers continue to use the state as their headquarters for automotive-related aspects, some parts of the northern state have had a rough time making the transition to an autonomous future. The Willow Run plant near Ypsilanti, Mich. is one of those places. 

The old automotive plant was once heavily used for the development of airplanes during World War II. General Motors bought the factory in 1953 and used it to make car transmissions, and used it for that purpose until 2009, when the automaker shut the plant down when it planned to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. 

Last year, the American Center for Mobility (ACM) announced plans to turn the Willow Run plant into a hub for driverless-car testing. Overhauling the plant to be a site for autonomous testing wasn't an easy endeavor for ACM, as it estimated the project would cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $100 million. At the time $90 million was already secured, as the Michigan Economic Development Corporation provided the majority of the funds. 

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Department Of Transportation Rescinds Designations

While it was all good news for Willow Run and Michigan as a whole, The Detroit News reports that the ACM has lost its federal designation as a proving ground for driverless vehicles, which has put a bit of a bind on Willow Run's ability to get money that Congress supposedly set aside for the plant to research autonomous technology. 

The outlet points toward a document that outlines guidelines for autonomous vehicles that was released earlier this month by the Trump administration, more specifically the U.S. Department of Transportation, that stated it would be rescinding the Willow Run facility's designation. Not only that, nine others would have their designation rescinded, as well.

Earlier this year, Congress put aside $20 million for each of the 10 proving-ground facilities that received the designation. As The Detroit News reports, the $20 million was part of a larger fund of $100 million that Congress had set aside for grants that could be put toward the testing of self-driving tech. 

In the document, the U.S. Department of Transportation states that 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." 

Without the designation, Willow Run will have to compete against even more facilities that are all in the running to get Congress' money for autonomous testing. And with Michigan's foul winter weather, automakers and companies could decide to go with warmer climates for their headquarters and travel to Michigan for inclement-weather testing. 

ACM Will Still Continue To Be A Testing Hub

The ACM doesn't believe that the loss of the federal designation will alter the facility's course to become a leader for autonomous testing. "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," said the center 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 U.S. DOT proving ground designation, remain."  

Lawmakers and senators in Michigan are adamant that they will continue to push for Willow Run to receive the federal funds that the government promised it would give to the site. But whether that will actually happen remains to be seen, especially when you consider that all of the 10 points will no longer have the designation. 

  • 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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Other Changes The New Guidelines Implements

While Michigan's lawmakers are hopeful that the ACM will get the promised funds, U.S. Transportation Secretary Chao emphasized that the Trump administration did not want to pick favorites when it comes to how and where autonomous technology comes to the market. 

"The department's approach is technology neutral," Chao said during the introduction of the new guidelines, reports The Detroit Free Press. "This department is not in the business of picking winners and losers….Consumers and users will ultimately decide which technology or package of (technologies) suits them best." 

The new guidelines, which is roughly 80 pages long, also provides new definitions for "driver" and "operator." Traditionally, an operator or a driver would a human, but the department has stretched the definition of the words to account for autonomous systems. Now, the words, as The Detroit Free Press points out, "recognize that such terms do not refer exclusively to a human, but may include an automated system."  

While some weren't happy to see that the locations designations were stripped, others were happy about the new guidelines. The outlet claims that some representatives from the automotive industry, which include Mitch Bainwol, the CEO of Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, were excited about the changes. Bainwol believes that the new guidelines takes recent advances in the industry and builds upon previous guidance. 

"Secretary Caho and the Department of Transportation should be commended for again spurring the development of innovative safety technologies, including self-driving vehicle technologies that hold great promise for our nation," Bainwol said in a statement. 

Modern safety technology is improving every day and current systems on vehicles are better than they ever have been, but they're not perfect. The only way to make the systems safer is to conduct more testing. But consumers haven't fully embraced autonomous cars yet, hindering the release and testing of new tech. 

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