A test track for connected and autonomous vehicles built on the grounds of a dilapidated auto factory in southeastern Michigan has officially opened for business, and perhaps at the perfect time. Operations at the American Center for Mobility (ACM) began just as the winter’s first major snowstorm hit the state. Snow and icy weather present some of the most vexing challenges in preparing self-driving vehicles for widespread use, and the ability to test in poor conditions on a closed track will be welcomed by manufacturers.
Visteon Corporation and the Toyota Research Institute were the first two companies to use the facility. Visteon, a leading supplier of vehicle electronics headquartered in nearby Van Buren Township, tested its autonomous highway functionality amid the snowfall and intends to focus on vetting its driving algorithms and vehicle-to-vehicle communication technology. Toyota engineers began orientation and driver training.
Ford and others are on next week’s schedule. Ford’s upcoming appearance on the track will mark something of a homecoming that’s roughly seven decades in the making—the company constructed the Willow Run factory that first resided on these grounds, using it to build B-24 bombers during World War II. Ford left the plant after the war ended, and General Motors purchased the facility in 1953 and built transmissions in the factory until it shuttered operations in 2010. Since then, a trust created to manage the property and the state’s economic development arm have worked to resurrect the 335-acre property.
Construction started in early 2017. In its first iteration, the test facility includes a 2.5-mile highway loop, a 700-foot curved tunnel, two double-deck overpasses, and intersections and roundabouts. Part of U.S. 12, a local highway that abuts the northern edge of the property, has been used as part of the highway loop. Starting next spring, workers will begin construction of a second phase, which will feature a city-style driving environment and tech park. That construction is expected to continue into 2019. So far, the American Center for Mobility has secured $110 million to pay for the first two phases of the project, according to an announcement signaling the start of testing. Initial private investors include Ford, Toyota, Visteon, Hyundai, and AT&T.
“We have been moving rapidly, and along with good input from our founders, a great deal of work has gone into developing this site,” said John Maddox, president and chief executive officer of ACM. “Opening our doors is just the beginning.”
A third phase remains under consideration. The project’s leaders are hoping to secure funding to build, among other things, a cybersecurity center to help industry engineers figure out how to keep hackers out of connected cars and a conference area where industry executives and standards bodies can convene.
The American Center for Mobility is one of 10 locations across the country that received an official test-site designation from the U.S. Department of Transportation in January 2017, joining others that include locations in Pittsburgh, San Diego, and the San Francisco Bay Area.
Absent from the DOT’s list is Mcity, a test facility opened to much fanfare on the campus of the University of Michigan in 2015. Although located only 11 miles apart, the ACM and Mcity sites aren’t necessarily competitors. The university site focuses on early-stage research on a shorter test track, while ACM intends to concentrate on later-state development, testing, and validation.