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American Center for Mobility: Inside the Playground for Autonomous, Electric Vehicles

The facility's 500 acres and 350,000 square feet of building space is a hive of industry research.

WILLOW RUN, Michigan - From Axis-busting B-24 Liberator bombers to Chevrolet Corvairs to 21st Century mobility, the former aircraft factory and airport nestled between Belleville and Ypsilanti Township today is forging a future of autonomous, electric vehicle research in earnest. Even as prospects for widespread adoption of autonomous and electric cars and trucks comes into question, the American Center for Mobility's (ACM) Technology Park officially opened for business Tuesday with hopes of attracting automakers and their suppliers, robotic and artificial intelligence developers, laboratories, workforce training, and "various types of activities" to its 500-acre site, according to interim CEO Mark Chaput.

The ACM began offering 350,000 square feet of building space sprawled between the simulated streets and highways, replete with GPS-blocking tunnels, via a commercial property agent Tuesday. Already, the roads surrounding these buildings have been used "significantly" for testing by Ford and Toyota, as well as by the U.S. Transportation department for its work on semi-truck "platooning" testing, according to Paul Kruto, CEO of Ann Arbor SPARK, an economic development consultancy.

In addition to Ford and Toyota, the ACM's founding partners include Subaru, Hyundai, Visteon, Microsoft and AT&T.

The State of Michigan and its Transportation department have contributed "just shy of $100 million" to rehabbing and building the facilities on the historic site of the so-called Arsenal of Democracy, where the Ford family donated land in 1940 for construction of the B-24 military bomber factory. By 1944, Ford was able to build one bomber per hour to aid the Allies' World War II effort. Later, Ford sold the factory to post-WWII automaker Kaiser-Frazer, and by the mid-'50s it was leased to General Motors for Hydra-Matic transmission production, and finally sold to the automaker for assembly of the 1960-69 Chevrolet Corvair. Facing potential demolition in the early '10s, a small portion of the original 5-million square-foot Willow Run factory was set aside for the Yankee Air Museum to celebrate and preserve artifacts from bomber production.

While the ACM expects to attract tenants from around the world, organizers see it as necessary in competing with future mobility development already underway in China, which has at least six similar facilities, and Europe, which has its own facilities, too, Chaput and Kruto say. Though automakers and tech companies like Alphabet's Waymo have tested future technologies like autonomous driving and electric cars for years, the ACM's Northern Great Lakes location will allow for controlled environments in which to develop solutions for icy, snowy roads that hinder autonomous systems, and low temperatures that deplete electric vehicle range.