Newest Driverless-Vehicle Test Center Set to Be Built Near Detroit

A non-profit company funded by the state of Michigan broke ground Monday near Detroit on a large-scale research center, aiming to capitalize on the global race to offer driverless vehicle technology.

The American Center for Mobility, to be built on 311 acres adjacent to Willow Run Airport in Ypsilanti, Mich., bills itself as a testing facility for "future mobility" that will enable "safe validation ... to accelerate the development of voluntary standards."

As automakers, suppliers, software companies like Alphabet's (GOOGL) Google (GOOG) subsidiary and ride-hailing companies like Uber roll out prototype vehicles, the urgency to test, validate and create operating standards has grown. Much testing already takes place on public roadways and test tracks in Silicon Valley, Germany, Pittsburgh and other software development hotbeds.

Politicians and business interests in southeast Michigan, where the modern auto industry was born, are striving to ensure that Detroit hangs on as a capital of personal mobility. General Motors (GM) and Ford (F) , two of the city's original automakers, are quickly tweaking their business plans to compete against companies selling rides, not vehicles.

"What we offer, among other things, is a safer environment in a closed facility," said Jack Hu, vice president of research and development at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The university also operates a driverless tech testing facility called MCity, specializing in ventures to develop, among other things, communication protocols between vehicles.

The first phase of the new Ypsilanti facility, scheduled to open late next year, will include 2.5-mile high-speed loop, representing an investment of about $20 million.

An accident earlier this year that killed the owner of a Tesla (TSLA) Model S sedan in Florida using the car's AutoPilot system raised regulatory alarms in Washington about a lack of performance standards and safety guidelines for vehicles with autonomous features. This week, the Michigan legislature passed enabling legislation that will permit limited testing of driverless technology without an engineer or other personnel behind the wheel.

The site of the new test facility was occupied by a GM transmission plant prior to the automaker's 2009 bankruptcy; and before it had been used during World War II to assemble B-24 bombers.

"This is all part of our state's commitment to redefine Michigan's legendary leadership and history of innovation in the automotive industry," said Rick Snyder, governor, at the ceremony.

The new track's chief operating officer, Laurel Champion, said on Tuesday that no customers for the track had yet committed, though numerous discussions are under way.

Doron Levin is the host of "In the Driver Seat," broadcast on SiriusXM Insight 121, Saturday at noon, encore Sunday at 9 a.m.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.

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