Demand grows for Ypsi autonomous vehicle test facility set to open in 2017

The purchase of Ypsilanti's former Willow Run plant last week moves the American Center for Mobility (ACM) closer to opening a test facility for automated and connected vehicles in Ypsilanti Township by the end of next year.
 
According to ACM chief operating officer John Maddox, many potential clients would like to see that date moved up by 12 months.
 
"We intend to open a very professionally operated, professionally built facility, and that will take us calendar year 2017 to do that, but that has not stopped automakers from asking," Maddox says. "We've had a number of requests from automakers who would like to start testing as soon as December of this year."
 
Willow Run Arsenal of Democracy Landholdings Limited Partnership purchased the 335-acre property from the Revitalizing Auto Communities Environmental Response (RACER) Trust for $1.2 million and will lease the property to the ACM.
 
The site was previously home to General Motors' powertrain plant and had been used before that to manufacture B-24 bombers during World War II. Maddox says the site's existing infrastructure includes triple-decker overpasses, railroad grade crossings, and bridges that can be used for test driving and would have been very expensive to build from scratch.
 
Over the next year, four major projects will be completed before the center opens: a Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) overhaul to Michigan Avenue/US 12 near the site; the ACM's construction of a 2.5-mile practice route for driverless vehicles using former portions of US 12; replacement of all underground utilities, most of which are more than 70 years old; and RACER's installation of new groundwater and stormwater systems on site.
 
The MDOT project "right-sizes" Michigan Avenue for today's traffic, Maddox says, while also providing the ACM with realistic roadways for test driving. Plans call for Michigan Avenue's eastbound lanes to be reconfigured for two-way traffic. The center will then convert the empty westbound lanes into a "highway loop" practice route.
 
"We finished our conceptual design about a month ago and are now in the detailed design phase, where we are planning down to the centimeter where this new road and the exit ramps, et cetera, will be and how it will connect with the existing road," Maddox says.
 
Maddox is also assistant director of the Mobility Transformation Center (MTC) at the University of Michigan. He says the MTC's existing Mcity test facility for autonomous vehicles in Ann Arbor will work side-by-side with the ACM, with Mcity continuing to focus on early-stage research and education while the ACM focuses on the later stages of testing and competitive research.
 
"We see a natural evolution of technology going from research through product development to certification and deployment," Maddox says.

Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.
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