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.