YPSILANTI TOWNSHIP, Mich. -- The American Center for Mobility, a crucial test ground in Michigan for autonomous vehicle technology, held its formal grand opening amid questions about the future safety of self-driving vehicles.
Huddled in a tent Wednesday on Planet M Drive at Willow Run Airport, a procession of leaders spoke to the media and stakeholders about the autonomous and connected vehicles site's growing importance as intelligent vehicle systems become common, particularly after the deadly crash in Tempe, Ariz., last month involving an Uber autonomous vehicle and a pedestrian. The collision claimed the life of Elaine Herzberg after the Uber Volvo XC90's autonomous systems failed to detect her crossing the street.
"I'm surprised by public resistance to autonomous vehicles. ... What happened with Uber in Arizona makes it harder," said U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, whose district includes the American Center for Mobility. "This is why we need this site."
The center officially opened to partners late last year with the completion of the first phase of construction, which includes a 2.5-mile highway loop with on- and off-ramps, a 700-degree curved tunnel, customer garage and operations center. Phase two will feature a technology park for customers, an urban driving environment and the center's new headquarters, which are housed at the former Willow Run airport terminal. Construction is underway.
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder said the accident in Tempe needs to be viewed as a learning experience, studied in places such as the center, to find how vehicles can be more road-ready. The center's CEO, John Maddox, agreed.
"What happened in Tempe is a clear indication the technology needs to continue being developed," Maddox said. "Having this facility and others like it is very, very critical" to the success of autonomous vehicles.
The site is largely supported by the private sector, buying sponsorships to use and market the site. In January, Subaru of America Inc. joined AT&T, Toyota Motor Corp., Ford Motor Co., Hyundai America Technical Center Inc., Adient and Visteon Corp. in funding the center. Microsoft is the most recent sponsor, signing on to provide cloud storage options to users and to study the mechanism of sharing data between autonomous vehicles and the cloud.
The center has secured more than $110 million in funding toward the total $135 million cost of the 500-acre proving grounds at Willow Run.
However, the site is an idea that grew from political leadership and funding.
The state of Michigan approved $35 million for the nonprofit controlling the center, Willow Run Arsenal of Democracy Landholdings, to support the construction of the first phase of the center. The Strategic Fund board also approved a state Renaissance Zone designation that waives property taxes for 15 years, worth $1.9 million per year.
Once home to a thriving General Motors vehicle assembly plant -- bulldozed in 2014 -- a Kaiser-Frazer vehicle manufacturing plant and the Ford 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.