Michigan Says it Trumps California in Quest for Robot-Car Test Dollars

By Keith Naughton | February 26, 2016

Michigan and California, vying for control of our driverless future, are each proposing crumbling World War II military sites as ideal locations to test robot cars. Michigan’s secret weapon? Better potholes.

The Great Lakes state plans to make a test track out of a 330-acre (134-hectare) industrial ghost town near Ypsilanti, where Rosie the Riveter built B-24 bombers during World War II. Backers contend that tough winters make the Willow Run factory site a better proxy for the imperfect world of driving than California’s decommissioned Navy base in Concord.

“California is not the real world – they don’t have four seasons,” said Debbie Dingell, the Democratic congresswoman representing Ypsilanti. “We’ve got real potholes. It’s a much more real-world scenario.”

The states are competing for a chunk of almost $4 billion in federal funding that President Barack Obama last month proposed for development of self-driving cars. While Congress has yet to approve the funding, the dangled money sets up a test-track showdown mirroring the larger struggle between Detroit and Silicon Valley for control of the connected car.

“We’re going to compete for that $4 billion – you can plan on that,” said Randy Iwasaki, executive director of the Contra Costa Transportation Authority. The group oversees the California site, now called GoMentum Station, where munitions were stored underground during the war. “May the best organization win.”

Selling Points

Each site has advantages. GoMentum Station has an arid 2,100 acres where 20 miles (32 kilometers) of roads weave around empty barracks, a mess hall, gymnasium and bowling alley. While it doesn’t have any state or federal funding, it already has one client: Honda Motor Co.

Willow Run, by contrast, has a triple-level overpass and, nearby, underused lanes on U.S. Highway 12 where planners say test cars from multiple makers could travel in squadrons, reaching 75 miles per hour and negotiating tight turns, bridges and tunnels. Backers intend to leave some parts of the site rugged, to mimic real-world conditions, while paving new roads and erecting fake storefronts to create urban and highway environments. The factory itself was torn down last year.

The state of Michigan has put up $20 million to start developing the site and to buy the property from Racer Trust, an entity created after General Motors’ 2009 bankruptcy to dispose of its former factories. The Willow Run factory became a GM transmission plant after serving as part of Detroit’s famed Arsenal of Democracy, spitting out one shiny B-24 Liberator bomber every hour. Among its 42,000 wartime employees was Rose Will Monroe, celebrated in bond-sales films as Rosie the Riveter, based on the iconic poster and song.

Automaking Center

The planned $80 million conversion of Willow Run is key to efforts by Michigan business leaders and politicians to keep Detroit at the center of automaking. The mission has taken on added urgency as Google dominates development of self-driving cars, with Apple Inc. and Tesla Motors Inc. also in pursuit. U.S. safety regulators this month told Google its artificial-intelligence system can be considered a replacement for human drivers and are fast-tracking efforts to establish new rules of the road for autonomous autos.

As with any real estate discussion, location is key – and backers of each site say theirs prevails.

For California, it’s access to technology companies. GoMentum Station has one attribute that trumps everything Michigan has to offer, Iwasaki said: “We’re literally 39 miles north of Silicon Valley.”

The Michigan team touts its access to a wide number of automakers and more than a century of experience. Three-quarters of the industry’s research and development money is spent in Michigan, or about $8 billion, said Kevin Kerrigan, a senior adviser to Michigan Governor Rick Snyder. The site would work in conjunction with the University of Michigan’s Mcity, a 32-acre faux town just 12 miles from the Willow Run location, has been booked solid with autonomous testing since opening last summer.

Common Language

“Connected vehicles do not work unless a General Motors car can talk to a Honda,” said Gary Peters, a Democrat and Michigan’s junior U.S. senator, who is pushing for federal funding. “They all have to be in the same test facility, running their cars.”

Willow Run’s backers are also pitching the site as a place where federal regulators could test driverless cars to ensure they meet safety rules.

In the end, supporters say the rugged roads, spotty infrastructure and cold weather for which Michiganders get chided may be the very selling points needed to win the day, since autonomous technology can be afflicted with snow blindness.

“If you can’t test cars in snow and ice,” Peters said, “you’re in trouble.”

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