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From B-24 Bombers to Autonomous Car Testing

American Center for Mobility’s new CEO plans the home of the self-driving car.

Grounds next to the Willow Run, Michigan, airport that once contained a 5-million-square-foot factory where the Ford Motor Company built B-24 Liberator aircraft during World War II is being prepared as the place that could help wrestle the autonomous car-testing center-of-the-world title from Silicon Valley. The American Center for Mobility, a non-profit organization that hopes to open 332 acres at Willow Run to autonomous testing early next year, named its CEO and board members Friday.

The Center’s CEO is John Maddox, assistant director of the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute’s (UMTRI) 32-acre Mcity autonomous testing facility. He’s not leaving UofM (where he’ll retain a partial appointment) for a competitor; the two facilities will offer a different variety of roads and someday, Maddox says, could be connected by another dedicated autonomous testing road. Willow Run is about 8 miles east of Mcity in Ann Arbor, a much smaller facility operated primarily by faculty and students.

“We always knew we could not accommodate the full range of driving at Mcity,” Maddox says. “We knew we needed a place that was bigger and tested the full range” of roads. “Our focus is on accelerating the development of autonomous vehicle standards.”

Plans are not complete but will include 2.5-miles of highway speed loop, including a divided highway, on/off ramps, elevation, “and perhaps a covered tunnel,” Maddox says, which would place autonomous vehicles with redundant sensor systems in situations in which GPS guidance would not work. Willow Run will have much larger stretches of city blocks with a much more “developed” city than Mcity, or AstaZero just outside of Volvo’s hometown of Gothenburg, Sweden. Like Mcity and AstaZero, Willow Run will feature Hollywood set-like cities with propped-up building facades.
The Center’s Willow Run facility also will include a rural area with gravel roads.

John Maddox

The American Center for Mobility will build seven garages and office space for automakers and suppliers, as well as its own office space. It expects to create 15 new jobs at the facility.

The Center is well into the process of raising funds, on top of $20 million committed by the state of Michigan. The facility also will be used to test telecommunication (mobile phone) standards and infrastructure technology, including traffic signals and pedestrian crosswalks.

The factory and its grounds are adjacent to the Willow Run airport, which is used for freight and charter flights. A portion remains of the 5-million-square-foot factory once touted as the world’s largest bomber factory and will be used to house the Yankee Air Museum. After World War II, Ford did not buy the B-24 assembly plant, and it was sold instead to Kaiser-Frazer, which subsequently sold it to General Motors in 1953. GM built an adjacent factory in 1959 to assemble the Chevrolet Corvair.

Though Google recently announced it is extending autonomous car testing to Washington state, Michigan is vying through various programs to become the premier four-season testing grounds for the burgeoning technology. Snow and ice on public roads has been especially problematic for current state-of-the-art self-driving sensors. But automakers and suppliers have made advances, thanks to testing in Michigan, Maddox says.

“The industry has moved very, very quickly in the last 12 months, on weather,” he says.