The center received a major boost in January when the U.S. Department of Transportation named it as one of 10 entities around the country — and the only one in Michigan — designated by the department as a self-driving vehicle proving ground and research hub. That announcement raises the profile of the center north of I-94 and hints at the hopes invested in it by its backers, including Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., who called it “absolutely vital to ensure Michigan continues to be the center for advanced automotive technology.”
The center, a joint initiative with the state, was created as a partnership with the Michigan Department of Transportation; the Michigan Economic Development Corp.; the University of Michigan; Ann Arbor SPARK, a non-profit economic development group; and Business Leaders for Michigan, a nonprofit business roundtable. Those groups are largely represented on its six-member board.
The center will be open to automakers, companies focused on vehicle communications, suppliers — basically anyone who needs to test or certify driverless vehicles or related technologies. Community colleges and other educators may also pair up with the center.
The design for the center has been finalized and if executed fully, it will transform the weedy patches of pavement where tens of thousands of workers once toiled. Building new infrastructure or updating what's already on site, the center would include a 2 1/2-mile high-speed highway test track; multilane intersections, alleys and traffic circles; a 700-foot curving tunnel; two triple-decker overpasses; a cybersecurity lab; an electrical substation large enough to power a city, and driverless shuttles to connect at least some of the pieces.
“What we’re going to create is ... a lifelike proving ground so we can really exercise these (driverless) vehicles,” said John Maddox, the center’s president and CEO. “No one will have the full scope of what we will have.”
The planning for the center, which is expected to open in December, comes in the midst of a veritable frenzy of autonomous (driverless) vehicle announcements and as more semi-autonomous technologies, including parking assistance and crash avoidance systems, make their way into more vehicles. In the last couple of months alone, Ford announced a $1-billion investment in a self-driving car startup, Uber identified Wixom as the location for an autonomous vehicle research center and Waymo unveiled its self-driving Chrysler Pacifica at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.