A $3 million grant from the Michigan Strategic Fund will kick-start development of a massive autonomous-vehicle proving ground at the former Willow Run plant site in Ypsilanti, MI.

The funds will enable purchase of the property and design work for the American Center for Mobility (ACM) on the 335-acre (136-ha) property famous for its role as the site of Ford’s B-24 bomber assembly plant and airfield during WWII. Postwar, General Motors used the site for vehicle assembly and transmission production.

Partners in the ACM initiative include the Michigan Department of Transportation and Michigan Economic Development Corp., the University of Michigan, Business Leaders for Michigan and Ann Arbor SPARK, a local economic-development organization.

The long-range goal of the center is to assure the U.S. is competitive with autonomous-vehicle development in Europe and Asia, says John Maddox, newly appointed CEO of the center.

“Other nations are moving very, very fast,” says Maddox. “We want to make sure that the U.S. is in the lead when it comes to automated vehicles.”

Adds MDOT Director Kirk T. Steudle: “For decades, Willow Run supported our freedom as a nation and as travelers seeking choices. MDOT officials are proud to play a role in reinvigorating this iconic site to ensure that Michigan remains the world’s mobility leader.”

The center will be owned and operated by a nonprofit organization focused on testing, verification and certification of connected and automated vehicles. While auto companies and suppliers will be primary beneficiaries, Maddox says the facility also will be of high value to non-automotive companies, such as those testing mobile communication equipment and government entities working to establish voluntary guidelines for automated transportation.

“Essentially, it is a track for hire on one side,” says Maddox, adding that companies concerned about confidentiality could book the entire facility for exclusive access and use during certain periods.

The sheer size of the site and its former industrial use give the ACM some diverse characteristics that will enable highway-speed testing on a 2.5-mile (4-km) track as well as specialized testing for vehicle-to-vehicle, vehicle-to-infrastructure, infrastructure-to-infrastructure and even vehicle-to-train communications, Maddox notes.

Maddox sees the ACM as a perfect complement to nearby Mcity, an 18-acre (7.3-ha) autonomous-vehicle test center featuring simulated urban and suburban roads and infrastructure at U-M in Ann Arbor, MI. Maddox served previously as assistant director of the Michigan Mobility Transportation Center that provides oversight of Mcity, and he retains a partial leadership role there.

Maddox says Mcity will continue to focus on research and early-stage development and low-speed testing while ACM will be able to handle higher-speed testing, advanced product development and a higher number of users.

“It will encourage and speed up the development of automated use,” Maddox says.

Plans call for construction at Willow Run to get under way in early 2017 with the center fully operational in early 2018. The Michigan Strategic Fund is expected to provide $20 million in seed money to support startup operations. GM, Ford, Toyota and supplier Robert Bosch have expressed support for the center.

bgritzinger@wardsauto.com