Visteon tests its DriveCore autonomous driving platform at the American Center for Mobility.
YPSILANTI, Mich. — The American Center for Mobility last month opened its 500-acre automotive proving ground here at the historic Detroit- area manufacturing site known as Willow Run. Once home to a thriving General Motors vehicle assembly plant — bulldozed in 2014 — a Kaiser-Frazer vehicle manufacturing plant and the Ford Motor Co. production plant for B-24 bombers during World War II, the Willow Run site has come back to life to support autonomous driving, advanced mobility and vehicle artificial intelligence.
The nonprofit American Center for Mobility, with $100 million in funding from companies such as Toyota, Ford, Hyundai and Visteon, will operate as a real-world road network where companies can lease space to develop technologies for vehicles and communication systems.
Its second role will be as an incubator to accelerate startups in the emerging autonomous-drive fields. It also is envisioned as a catalyst for bringing new auto industry investment to southeast Michigan. Center CEO John Maddox, 53, spoke with Special Correspondent Stephanie Hernandez McGavin about what the site means for the auto industry as well as how it might spur economic development.
Q:What’s the significance of restoring life at Willow Run?
A: This county is one of the most financially challenged areas in Michi- gan. Willow Run has a postindustrial Mad Max feeling. It’s not the prettiest place, but it offers all kinds of benefits for our project, like existing infrastructure and public roads.
What kind of companies are customers?
Automakers of very different stripes and sizes, startups and suppliers. We’re also bringing in data and communications companies developing software and communications infrastructure — or the Internet of transportation. We’re still developing, but we also hope to be testing drones. They will become a major component of our testing facility.
Are you encouraging certain companies to set up shop in Michigan that normally wouldn’t?
We’re already seeing [the American Center for Mobility] as an economic attraction. AT&T is a perfect example. Its headquarters is in Dallas, and AT&T Mobility is in Atlanta, but it is our first founding investor, and they’re here at Willow Run to work with companies in a more technical and direct way. We’re also starting to build a technology park, which we know will be an attractor. Others, like venture capital firms, aren’t even doing testing but want to interact with certain companies here.
Is there an opportunity for similar testing sites elsewhere in the country?
Having other sites with on-road and simulation environments like ours, where you can contribute to the development of automated and connected vehicles, is critical for jobs in the industry. Those are jobs we would like to attract to Michigan and retain in the U.S. But this is not a Detroit versus Silicon Valley competition — it’s for the U.S. We invented autonomous vehicles here, but other countries are really investing in them. The U.S. is not. We think having a place like [the center] is going to be a significant boost for international competitiveness.
What are the stakes?
We built our Phase 1 and will build our Phase 2 without any federal funding. But we’re being closely followed by other countries now. Germany, Korea, Japan and Sweden are asking to partner with us on this site. We believe the U.S. is facing international competition in automated- and connected-vehicle advancement. The bigger picture is we need to make sure the U.S. retains its leadership in the industry and automated vehicles. Because if we don’t, we will lose a significant number of jobs.
How will you attract the skilled individuals necessary to support this work?
We’re working with our partners to form an academic solution with colleges and the State of Michigan to ensure these education programs are developed as our technical site does.