Former Auto, Bomber Plant to Become Connected Vehicle Research Center

A 5 million-square-foot former automotive factory in Ypsilanti Township, MI—the site where Henry Ford perfected his system of producing a new World War II bomber every minute—has taken its first step toward new life as a connected vehicle research center.

“This is the next big thing in transportation technology,” says Paul Krutko, president and CEO of Ann Arbor SPARK. “Cars are becoming iPads on wheels, and in Southeast Michigan, cars are our legacy. If this is the next big thing, we need to position ourselves to play a role in that.”

To get the project going, Krutko says, SPARK helped bring together state government, business leaders, and University of Michigan researchers who were already working on a major connected vehicles pilot study.

Part of that work was drafting a report that detailed how the former plant, which most recently was the Willow Run GM powertrain production facility, could be transformed into a connected vehicle research center. That could not only boost academic and commercial efforts, but give a potential lift to Ypsilanti Township—right on the border of Wayne County—which has had a tough time economically in recent years.

The Willow Run plant was one of a group of manufacturing plants GM unloaded during its bankruptcy restructuring. It’s now controlled by RACER Trust, which supported the vision of turning the plant into a proving ground for connected vehicle safety testing open to OEMs, suppliers, and researchers.

Besides being mammoth in size, the facility also has office space, garages, highway entrance ramps, and an attached working airport.

Walbridge, a property developer that often works on automotive projects, agreed to take the lead on the project along with Devon Industrial Group. Both companies are based in Detroit. Krutko says no other connected vehicle research center of this size and scale exists, although there are similar projects underway in Japan and Arizona.

“There is competition, so if we’re not at the forefront, someone else will be,” he says.

There’s still some work to do. Krutko notes that the envisioned research center is still “perhaps three years” away from being finished. But enthusiasm for the project’s potential is high.

“I’m really pleased the idea has moved along,” he says. “Now Walbridge puts together the partners to bring it to fruition.”

Krutko says some of the original women who worked in wartime factories, giving rise to the “Rosie the Riveter” character, worked at the Willow Run Plant, and part of the vision for the site includes a history museum. For a look at the Willow Run Plant’s role in being America’s “arsenal of democracy,” see the video below.

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