How next-generation mobility testing facilities are driving economic development in Washtenaw County

French autonomous shuttle maker NAVYA opened a U.S. production facility in Saline in 2017, expecting to add about 50 jobs and make $1 million in capital improvements to the property. That major economic development – and many others – have been directly influenced by Washtenaw County's existing infrastructure for connected and autonomous vehicle businesses, according to Komal Doshi, director of mobility programs for Ann Arbor SPARK.

 

She says the University of Michigan's Mcity offers earlier-phase research and testing facilities for companies that might like to engage with university students and professors. Then when they're ready to go commercial, they go to the American Center for Mobility (ACM) in Ypsilanti Township for a wider variety of test environments and independent testing of their technology.

 

She says NAVYA was engaged with Washtenaw County for a long time before it opened the plant in 2017. NAVYA joined one of the first delegations of tech startups to visit the region and became interested in the tech lab at Mcity.

 

"They worked at the Mcity tech lab and had a pilot with the University of Michigan to move faculty and staff around," Doshi says. "By the time the pilot finished, they were already looking at spaces for a plant for manufacturing here. That's how the Saline plant came about."

 

NAVYA is just one example of how the mobility industry in Washtenaw County is driving economic development for the community as a whole.

 

DERQ is another company that was drawn to Washtenaw County's mobility infrastructure, Doshi says. The company is from Dubai but chose to establish its North American headquarters in Ann Arbor. DERQ tested at Mcity and ACM and is now doing a pilot program in Detroit that uses DERQ software to predict and prevent collisions.

 

Yet another company attracted to the region was U.K.-based Propelmee, which recently received a PlanetM grant to test its technology on Michigan roads. That's the first time the company has done such testing outside the U.K. The tests will be conducted at ACM.

 

"The reason they applied for the grant and were interested in this region was purely because of the testing facilities they can leverage," Doshi says. "The laws that we have about testing on roads are favorable to them, and those laws are structured differently in the U.K."

 

Komal says the local economic impact is likely to be strongest in Ypsilanti Township.

 

"Our CEO, Paul Krutko, saw an opportunity there at the ACM site," she says. "Obviously there's a large need for economic development in the Ypsilanti community, with the dying of the GM plant and a lot of job loss, and it needed to be invigorated."

 

ACM president and CEO Michael Noblett says ACM's presence on the campus of Willow Run Airport has already generated interest from other companies, including Subaru, which recently bought 75 acres to build its own tech park across from ACM. He says other companies like Waymo and Uber have been inquiring about land and infrastructure in the area as well.

 

Plans for phase two of ACM's development, which include adding an 18- to 20-acre technology park next to ACM's existing proving grounds, are likely to accelerate the pace of economic development. Noblett says there's more to ACM than its 500-acre proving grounds.

 

"That's the anchor that gets these companies out here and gets conversations going around mobility and economic development," he says. "But the next phase, building the tech park, is really the main goal of our activity, and that is to provide a center of gravity. We see it as a location for all of these companies, from OEMs and global tier suppliers to startup companies building their first widgets for the industry, to come together and have a location where they can work together."

 

He says the idea is to attract tenants to the tech park who can share ideas and technologies. The ultimate goal is to keep mobility talent in Michigan and replace traditional manufacturing jobs that have been lost.

 

Once tenants start coming to the tech park, Noblett says there will be additional economic growth to fill demand for support services. When high-tech workers come to Michigan from Silicon Valley and other parts of the world, they will be expecting access to restaurants, daycare, hotels, dry cleaning, and other services that ACM plans to have located right on its property at Willow Run.

 

"The test track is the draw, and the tech park is the anchor," Noblett says. "The goal is to keep the center of the universe for the autonomous engineering future here in southeast Michigan and create economic development in the region."
 

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