Six months ago, the American Center for Mobility opened with much fanfare, as government officials and industry executives hailed the arrival of a proving ground for self-driving vehicles as a technical marvel and economic anchor.
Built on the grounds of a dilapidated factory in Ypsilanti, Mich., that saw its heyday making airplanes during World War II, the facility was remade for an autonomous age. In April, the mobility center opened a 2.5-mile highway loop and sketched plans to add places for test scenarios deemed too dangerous for public roads, a cyber-security center and more in future phases of development.
Those plans are now in flux as the center faces a turnover in leadership.
Since its grand opening, three top officials have departed. A search for a new CEO remains ongoing. In the meantime, Kirk Steudle, director of the Michigan Department of Transportation, has been serving as the organization's interim CEO and crafting plans that emphasize increasing revenue.
"We've got the basics, and now we're asking the industry what kind of environments they're interested in using that we don't have yet," Steudle told Automotive News. "An off-road area? Interest in a coast-down facility? Everything going forward will be driven by an industry board that lets us know what they're interested in using and renting. At the end of the day, we need to be building things that are rentable."
The stakes are high. Ford Motor Co., Toyota Motor Corp., Hyundai America Technical Center, Adient Ltd. and Visteon Corp. are among the automakers and suppliers that have invested up to $5 million each on the project.
As self-driving technology emerged from places such as Silicon Valley and Pittsburgh in recent years, state officials conceived of the center as a centerpiece in their strategy to ensure that Michigan remains a relevant home for the next-generation auto industry. They have steered tens of millions of dollars in public funding to get the organization up and running and do not want to see that investment languish.
A blueprint is being revised in collaboration with the organization's industry advisory board, and part of its plans will emphasize building more office and garage space for automakers and other companies to rent on site. Eight short-term and six long-term garages are already in use, the latter under 10-year leases. Steudle says there's demand for more facilities, and he anticipates more will be built by the third quarter of 2019.
"One thing that we have accelerated here is the economic development component," he said.