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Michigan's Willow Run Driverless Testing Facility Signifies a Fresh Start for the State

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【Summary】Construction for the new testing site on the former General Motors (GM) factory and World War II bomber production plant is already in the works. The first phase of the facility could be open to developers as early as December 2017.

Original Michael Cheng    Nov 30, 2016 6:42 AM PT

The inception of Michigan's Willow Run autonomous testing grounds is incredibly promising for a state that is looking for new ways to reclaim its status as a leader in the highly competitive auto industry. Earlier this year, the American Center for Mobility (ACM) formally launched the project on the 335-acre site, making it the second major testing facility for researchers in the area (the first one is located in the University of Michigan, called "Mcity").

The Willow Run project is up to 10 times bigger than Mcity and will cater to a myriad of environments, including highway, urban, residential, off-road and cyber. Additionally, groups must also deal with seasonal weather (rain, ice and snow), which is naturally part of the state's local profile. If all goes according to plan, the creation of multiple autonomous testing sites could attract startups, businesses and investors to establish their presence in the area.

"This is about the transformation of the automobile industry to the mobility industry," said Governor Rick Snyder.

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Second Wind

Construction for the new testing site on the former General Motors (GM) factory and World War II bomber production plant is already in the works. The first phase of the facility could be open to developers as early as December 2017. This includes a 2.5-mile highway loop that is capable of facilitating autonomous cars traveling at speeds up to 75 mph. The ACM will utilize existing infrastructure left behind by GM, such as slabs of concrete foundation and old highway overpasses, during construction. To ease barriers related to driverless testing, Governor Synder plans to propose a new regulatory framework for self-driving vehicles in the state, which could allow autonomous cars to be used on public roads.

By comparison, Mcity is suitable for stimulating a closed, urban environment for driverless vehicles. It features four-lane roads, intersections, sidewalks and minor obstacles. Moreover, groups can test their offerings on several types of road surfaces (concrete, asphalt, brick and dirt). The robust testing ground opened its doors to the auto sector in July 2015.

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Tax Incentives and Jobs

It's no secret that Michigan officials are prioritizing the development of self-driving sites in the area. To streamline the Willow Run project, the state will waive property taxes associated with the $80 million facility. The incentives could provide up to $1.9 million in annual savings for the mobility center, thanks to an "agreement for a payment in lieu of taxes" between the parties involved in the massive venture.

So far, ACM administrators spent $1.2 million for the purchase of the property. An additional $60 million will be needed to complete construction of the facility. Program leaders are hoping to acquire funding from the federal government or private investors to achieve this goal.

"What I think it will do is create high level jobs, and there will be spinoff companies that will be created from the technology that is being created," said Ypsilanti Township Supervisor Brenda Stumbo. "To have the innovative, creative talent coming to our area, our county, our state, it can only be positive."

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