An abandoned Michigan manufacturing facility that once cranked out bombers, guns, cars and transmissions could soon be advancing our driverless future.
A nonprofit organization has been created to oversee the transition of the former General Motors Willow Run manufacturing plant property near Ypsilanti, Michigan, into a national self-driving and connected vehicle testing site, reports Crain’s Detroit Business.
The sprawling property is mostly a flat expanse of tarmac, the perfect site for recreating a laundry list of city driving conditions that could confuse an autonomous vehicle’s brain: highway merging, ramps, bridges, elevation changes, high-speed maneuvering, complex intersections and even tunnels.
Once completed, the site would offer complexity above and beyond the University of Michigan’s Mcity course.
The nice-sounding American Center for Mobility will be headed by CEO John Maddox, who knows a few things about autonomous vehicles. Maddox previously served as as assistant director of Mcity and the university’s Mobility Transformation Center.
Maddox’s initial job will be working alongside the nonprofit’s business and government partners to raise the required funding. Though the state of Michigan has pledged $20 million to the facility, that’s only one quarter of the funds needed to make it a reality.
Once the funds are in place, the site can be purchased from its owner — Revitalizing Auto Communities Environmental Response Trust — and work can begin in earnest. The goal is to open the facility in two years.
The nearly-completed design of the test course, which was funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce, features a 2.5 mile loop containing all of the previously mentioned driving scenarios. Autonomous vehicles will be able to reach 80 miles per hour on the course.
The last manufacturing and assembly operations at Willow Run wrapped up in 2010 as GM struggled to emerge from bankruptcy. In its heyday, however, Willow Run produced everything that made America great. Solid GM Hydramatic transmissions, M-16 rifles and 20-millimeter autocannons, Fairchild cargo aircraft, and B-24 Liberator bombers (manufactured by Ford, the site’s builder, under contract from Consolidated Aircraft).
It was also the production site for Kaiser-Frazer automobiles from 1947 to 1953, and was the birthplace of every single Chevrolet Corvair enjoyed by Baby Boom-era America. Hell, it even sparked one man’s writing career!
The site clearly has oil and grease in its blood (and, very possibly, in its soil), making its return to the automotive landscape reminiscent of the Phoenix rising from the ashes.
(Note: Let’s not forget that the X-bodied Pontiac Phoenix was manufactured at Willow Run. Certainly, a dark chapter in our nation’s history.)