Michigan’s 335-acre Willow Run autonomous car test facility breaks ground

Michigan’s new American Center for Mobility at the historic Willow Run one-time manufacturing complex broke ground this week, paving the way for the launch of the technologically advanced testbed for autonomous and connected vehicles. The 335-acre site will play host to a new facility designed to help automakers and other stakeholders globally test their cars, connected infrastructure tech, vehicle communication systems and more across a variety of conditions in the hopes of speeding up the roll-out of this tech for a safer driving future.

The new test facility, which was announced earlier this year, is designed to help Michigan reaffirm its position at the head of the U.S. automotive industry, with an eye to the changing priorities of the field given the rapid improvements being made in autonomous driving tech. The Willow Run site will play host to a brand new facility designed not only for testing, but also for research, product development, education and more.

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It’s also about helping create and maintain voluntary industry standards for autonomous and connected vehicle tech going forward. The National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration presented draft guidelines for broad industry use around self-driving tech, but in addition to open comment and debate among the stakeholders involved, it makes sense that an actual full-scale testing facility where the parties involved can all interact and conduct research in tandem would help facilitate some kind of consensus building.

As you can see from the architectural images and diagrams representing what the site will look like when completed, miniature mock cities, highways, off ramps, rail crossings and more are part of the plan. In theory, the facility will offer a microcosm of most scenarios a car can expect to encounter in the real world, complete with the benefit of four seasons of weather including rain, ice and snow that’s a built-in Michigan benefit.

Michigan is investing in autonomous driving tech in a number of different ways, including via another project to build a testing ground led by Flint’s Kettering University, and University of Michigan opened its own test environment, dubbed “Mcity,” in Ann Arbor last year. The Willow Run project will be the largest in scope, however.