By on March 18, 2016

Willow Run Factory

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.)

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13 Comments on “Nonprofit to Americans: Make This Abandoned Property Great Again...”


  • avatar
    Lou_BC

    “A nonprofit organization”

    So far, that does sum up any company dealing with autonomy and battery hybrids.

  • avatar

    “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.”

    Is there a place for foolish pedestrians to attempt crossing the street? That could be fun to watch!

    PS: That old picture is fantastic.

  • avatar
    brettc

    After driving down Eureka road to drop a rental car off at DTW recently, I think car companies could just use Michigan roads exclusively for cold/hot weather testing as well as NVH testing. Holy crap with the potholes.

    • 0 avatar
      bball40dtw

      Yes it’s bad. Michigan’s lower peninsula is mosrly a giant wetland with a ton of freeze thaw cycles. It eats the roads. Even the Autobahn quality roads are obliterated at record pace. German gets about double the life out of a similar road.

  • avatar
    mcs

    Beyond something like MCity, you are better off running in the real world. Early on you have a human driver in control with a passenger reading the debug output of the equipment. Then when you get confidence, you put the car in control with a human ready to take over when there is a problem. If you’re working with cameras, you can even go with pre-recorded video.

    The trouble with a predefined environment is that you know pretty much what’s coming. You just can’t beat the randomness of the real world. Besides, there are several of these facilities already. Maybe they should take the $20 million and reduce the rat population in their schools.

  • avatar
    Robert.Walter

    I see a bubble in autonomous driving development test areas building.

  • avatar
    relton

    I started my career at this plant, Hydramatic, in 1965. Now it’s almost entirely gone, even the plant that built the Pontiac Phoenix.

    Bob

  • avatar
    dig

    I would rather own all of these things

    “Solid GM Hydramatic transmissions, M-16 rifles and 20-millimeter autocannons, Fairchild cargo aircraft, and B-24 Liberator bombers”

    than a self driving car. However I would not mind a self FLYING car that PM magazine kept promising me in my youth.

  • avatar
    manbridge

    Thanks for the pic of when we made things. Manufacturing is now dead. We’ve become a nation of assemblers and shopkeepers.

    Now excuse me while I wallow in sadness.

    • 0 avatar
      Luke42

      US manufacturing output (in terms of dollars) has been growing steadily (except for 2008-2010) for decades:
      https://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/series/OUTMS

      It’s manufacturing employement that’s the problem. American *people* no longer manufacture things, for the most part. Robots owned by American businesses make and export a lot of stuff.

      Sure explains a lot, don’t it?

      • 0 avatar
        Lou_BC

        manbridge – luke42 is correct. I live in a lumber town and over the past 40 years my town has not grown much in population despite some diversification and the fact that lumber output has increased exponentially. A mill that used to employ a 100 guys a shift now easily run on 1/4 that amount. The men remaining for the most part have some sort of trade.

  • avatar
    phreshone

    Henry Ford himself designed, and built Willow Run to build B-24 Bombers, not General Motors.

    The government came to him, asking him to build a factory which could match Consolidated’s 550 aircraft/year production. He came back the next day saying he would only do it if they would let him build 550/month

    Ford built the plant, did a sale/leaseback with the government during production, and it was subsequently sold to Kaiser after the war

  • avatar
    bball40dtw

    “The site clearly has oil and grease in its blood (and, very possibly, in its soil)”

    Plus hydraulic fluid. Hydraulic fluid everywhere!


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