A small college town outside Detroit is fast becoming the site of a statewide push to connect economic development, higher education, transportation and the looming questions of just how much of the auto industry might migrate to California in the future.
Michigan keeps throwing resources into the American Center for Mobility (ACM) in Ypsilanti, home to Eastern Michigan University and a stone’s throw from both Detroit and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The Michigan Strategic Fund, a tax dollar-based part of the Michigan Economic Development Corp., recently announced a $17 million investment in the center to go along with an earlier $3 million. In March, the center named John Maddox of the University of Michigan’s Mobility Transformation Center as its chief executive officer. Gov. Rick Snyder has thrown his weight behind the project, which also plans on seeking federal funding. Business leaders and economic development authorities have flocked to the activity happening in Ypsilanti.
It all centers on an old factory that churned out bombers during World War II. But now, as Silicon Valley companies ranging from Uber to Google to Tesla look to bring self-driving cars into the mainstream, Michigan is looking to revive the factory into something that can help keep the economic activity of the automotive industry within its borders.
The center will only be the latest facility aimed at automated transportation. The University of Michigan has already set up a “fake city” — M City — where Ford and other automakers have begun testing and refining self-driving cars. Google’s self-driving car project is in the process of setting up its own facility to test out its vehicles. General Motors is working on self-driving cars it plans to operate on its own Michigan campus.
The state has outside competition. The small Bay Area town of Concord, Calif., has repurposed an old Navy base into a facility for testing self-driving cars, an effort that’s attracted partnerships with Honda and the aspirant self-driving semi-truck maker Otto. Virginia, Massachusetts, Arizona, Ohio and other states have all set up programs in the hopes of attracting the same kind of research and development activity Michigan has been conducting.
“The Michigan economy will be strengthened by the many businesses attracted to the technological developments at ACM,” Steve Arwood, chief executive officer of the Michigan Economic Development Corp., said in a statement. “The center is a catalyst for economic growth and will attract a range of engineering talent that will further distinguish Michigan as the home for automotive innovation.”