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Auto Industry Leaders Discuss Possible Impact Of Washtenaw County's New Autonomous Vehicle Facility

American Center for Mobility
American Center for Mobility

By the end of 2017, the American Center for Mobility facility in Ypsilanti Township is expected to be up and running.  It will serve as testing facility for autonomous vehicles.  And as the North American International Auto Show is underway in Detroit, several of its participants spoke about the future of the center.

The latest cars roll out at the North American International Auto Show to the sound of upbeat music and light shows.  But it's information about autonomous vehicles that really engages audiences.  As automakers show more interest in autonomous technology, construction plans for the American Center for Mobility in Ypsilanti Township are already underway.  The center has applied to be designated as an official autonomous testing site by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

John Maddox is the president of the center.

"What it would mean for us, you know, is it's kind of like a national laboratory. You may be familiar that the United States established national labs, gosh, 60 or 70 years ago in places like Oak Ridge National Lab and Argon National Laboratory. We see the need for a national lab, if you will, for this technology of connected and automated vehicles. And so, that's the nature of our proposal to USDOT. And part of the competition, is that we want to be that national lab."

Congresswoman DebbieDingell from the 12th District has been pushing for the designation to be approved.  A decision is expected to be made before President Barack Obama leaves office.  She says it would make Washtenaw County a leader in testing autonomous vehicles.

"We have to make sure we're staying at the forefront of innovation and technology. And Michigan will always be the state that when you think of automobiles and what the next thing is, it's staying right here in this state."

The center will housed on 335 acres at Willow Run, the former site where B-24 bombers were built during World War II.  It will consist of street as well as highway testing and could be used for product development, not just research.

John Wilkerson is a spokesperson for the German auto supplier ZF.  Their North American headquarters are located in Livonia. 

"We're very interested in things like autonomous testing because we make virtually all the components that can go into an autonomous vehicle. Right now, we're making the sensors, which are the radars and the cameras. And next we'll be doing the lidar. We also make the safety domain electronic control unit that takes all those inputs from those sensors. And then we make the actuation units, such as steering and braking and active suspension."

Joe Weinsenfelder is an auto industry expert with cars.com.  He explains what the American Center for Mobility will mean for the industry.

"The automakers want desperately for the feds to step in and standardize some of the requirements and some of the regulations and policies about testing autonomous vehicles. Leaving it to the states kind of recreates a problem that already exists, which is where the states have different fuel efficiency requirements, and the automakers have to try and handle this patchwork, as opposed to having one standard they can work toward."

John Maddox also expects the center to attract more students to the University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University who are interested in going into the auto industry field.

"Having this world-class facility close to all those major schools will be a huge benefit for students, it will be a huge benefit for the community, and, keep in mind, is that, you know, those some students will become the next generation of automotive, transportation, and, maybe, communication engineers. And we want them here in Michigan."

Once the center opens, it will be the largest one of its kind in the country.

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— Jorge Avellan is the Ann Arbor beat reporter and anchor for 89.1 WEMU News.  Contact him at 734.487.3363 or email him javellan@emich.edu

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