DETROIT – A onetime military aircraft plant and formermanufacturing facility in Southeast Michigan is a leading candidate for a first-ever industry testing ground for emerging connected-vehicle technology.
The Willow Run plant, a 4,000-acre (1,619-ha) site 40 miles (64 km) west of here wherebuilt World War II bombers and GM operated a powertrain plant until 2009, would serve as the leading proving ground in North America for developing the vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure technologies seen as leading the way to greater transportation safety and, ultimately, autonomous driving.
“It’s leading the horserace right now,” says John Rakolta, chairman and CEO of manufacturing- facility builder Walbridge.
Detroit-based Walbridge, which works with a number of global automakers, recently won rights to redevelop the land, which currently is held by the RACER Trust, a unit that controls sites GM disposed of during its 2009 bankruptcy and seeks to dispose of or redevelop them.
In addition to the shuttered transmission plant, the site contains a network of roads built when it served as the hub of’s bomber production and an airfield and hangar facilities currently operating as a museum.
The turnkey nature of the complex makes it an attractive site for connected-vehicle development. Additionally, in nearby Ann Arbor, the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute presently is conducting the largest connected-vehicle field testing the industry has seen.
The federally funded U. of M. project is expected to yield reams of important real-world data on how drivers, cars and the transportation infrastructure interact, and that likely will make UMTRI a world center for the study of the technology.
And although much of the vehicle manufacturing might of Southeast Michigan has migrated to other states over the years, the region remains the heart of the global auto industry where OEMs and suppliers conduct most research and development.
The combination of these elements makes Willow Run the perfect place for a world headquarters for connected-vehicle development, Walbridge’s Rakolta says, noting an automaker group, or some other consortium of industry players, must step up to move the project forward.
“I don’t want to be in a position where I have to negotiate with my customers,” he says.
The clock is ticking, Rakolta reminds. Michigan faces competition on the connected-vehicle-development front from states such as Ohio, Texas, South Carolina and California’s Silicon Valley, where Google leads a major effort. Other countries are looking to become the center of such technology globally, as well.
What’s more, standards due later this year from the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin. expected to expedite industry development of the technology. “Urgency is the name of the game,” Rakolta says at the 2013 Michigan Automotive Summit here.
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder may have to step forward to give the project more momentum, he says. A new law under debate in the state’s Senate also may play a key role, because it removes many of the legal pitfalls confronting automakers’ use of public roads for developing V2V technology.
Hundreds of suppliers, OEMs, software-development firms and other organizations have contacted Walbridge with an interest of playing a role at Willow Run, Rakolta says.
Osamu Nagata, president and CEO-Motor Engineering & Mfg., the biggest Toyota R&D site outside of Japan, thinks Southeast Michigan should be the heart of connected-vehicle development.
“We can offer the best-balanced solution,” he says, one that considers demands of both consumers and the industry.