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Posted on Sun, Sep 8, 2013 : 5:59 a.m.

New connected vehicle research center could propel region to national spotlight, SPARK CEO says

By Lizzy Alfs


The former Willow Run GM Powertrain plant in Ypsilanti Township, pictured here in August, is slated for demolition beginning in October. Plans for a connected vehicle research center at the site were announced last week.

Melanie Maxwell |

Related story: Connected vehicle research center slated for former Willow Run plant

Developing a connected vehicle research center on the site of Ypsilanti Township’s former Willow Run GM Powertrain plant could be a game-changer for Washtenaw County, said Ann Arbor SPARK CEO Paul Krutko.

For Ypsilanti Township, it’s an opportunity to reactivate a 332-acre property that contains the historic Willow Run plant, boost the tax base and bring thousands of jobs to the township.

For southeast Michigan, it’s a chance to ensure the region remains at the forefront of automotive research and technology at a time when the industry is rapidly changing.

“(Southeast Michigan has) a lot of companies that are actively engaged in information technology as well as automotive research,” Krutko said. “I think having this kind of facility would draw the best and brightest from around the world. I think it would be a great attraction.”

Officials announced on Thursday that Detroit-based Walbridge Development LLC plans to purchase a majority of the former Willow Run plant property and build a test track for connected vehicles with R&D facilities.

Connected-vehicle technology allows sensor- and computer-equipped vehicles to communicate with each other and outside devices such as traffic signals or electronic signs to prevent collisions and improve traffic flow and fuel efficiency. The University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute is conducting a major connected vehicles study in a contract with the federal government.

Krutko said the connected vehicles plan for the former Willow Run plant, which was facilitated in part by SPARK, has been in the works for months. SPARK created a case report in early 2013 about the need for a world-class connected vehicles test facility in southeast Michigan.

“We had the University of Michigan talking to us about all the connected vehicle work they are doing with the pilot going on, and we meet regularly with Toyota and Hyundai,” he said.

“We need to get our arms around this because other regions of the U.S...are doing work with driverless cars. What happens next with transportation really is our legacy, and not other communities’ legacy. If we don’t do something, (other regions) will become the center of automotive research in the future.”


Researchers say connected vehicles can help to mitigate crashes on busy urban streets.


The Ypsilanti Township property has been on the market for redevelopment since 2011. RACER Trust, the group charged with liquidating GM’s holdings and cleaning up environmental contamination at 89 sites across 14 states, has been marketing the property.

Bruce Rasher, a redevelopment manager for RACER Trust, said Walbridge has entered into a written agreement with the trust to take ownership of the property once the 4.6 million square foot plant on the site has been demolished and the environmental contamination is removed.

“Walbridge has had preliminary discussions with potential users of this facility,” Rasher said. “We reached the point that the interest was serious enough that it would be prudent to give this control to Walbridge.”

The process to redevelop the site could take years, and Walbridge would first need to enter into a development agreement with Ypsilanti Township. RACER Trust has the right to review the plans, Rasher said.

Krutko said Walbridge, or another entity, could then create an open environment where different types of companies could lease parts of the facility for research and development purposes.

“We want to create an environment in which many, many companies — large and small, early-stage to mature — would then be able to use this research facility. We could see automotive suppliers, technology companies, or (original equipment manufacturers) themselves booking a period of research time at the facility.”

“University of Michigan has been key contributors to thinking about this opportunity. At some point in the future, if this is a reality, it may be that U-M would consider at some point conducting some of its research there.”

Stephen Forrest, U-M's Vice President for Research, said the university is building a separate track to test connected vehicles in Ann Arbor.

Forrest called the proposed Willow Run redevelopment "a very synergistic and important development" for U-M and one that would help make southeast Michigan a hub of connected vehicle research.

"If Michigan can be the center of this, that's going to make a huge difference to the country, to the region," Forrest said. "It will give a rebirth to our automobile industry that we cold only have dreamt about several years ago."

He added: "I am sure that any plan that comes out of there will have significant involvement from the university."

Krutko said the facility at the Willow Run site would have roadways and simulated city environments where vehicles could be tested in a controlled environment. SPARK’s case report contains a conceptual site plan that says the facility could have realistic lane markings, simulated tunnels, buildings of varying scales, realistic infrastructure and roundabouts.

The conceptual site plan — which Krutko said is just an example of what could be done with the connected vehicles facility — suggests there could be 12 buildings on the site with a job creation potential of 1,950 people. The estimated construction investment listed in the plan is $90 million.

“There’s a lot to do and there’s a lot that could go wrong, but I think we’ve stepped on a journey now that has a goal and a plan in mind that creates a very dramatic future, a different future, than what has been at that site now for a decade,” Krutko said.

Lizzy Alfs is a business reporter for Reach her at 734-623-2584 or email her at Follow her on Twitter at


Ben Petiprin

Mon, Sep 9, 2013 : 8:56 p.m.

If it's going to bring in so many jobs, why would they wait until the plant section was demolished before doing it? Don't they need that section of the place to accommodate mass employment. Otherwise I could see a few scientists working there and no one else.

Audion Man

Mon, Sep 9, 2013 : 1:40 p.m.

Um, what does SPARK do again? I mean other than getting lots of space, here.


Mon, Sep 9, 2013 : noon

If this is more than a SPARK fantasy, all the more reason you need to have an Ypsilanti section when you move to MLive.


Mon, Sep 9, 2013 : 4 p.m.

If you will allow it you go....BIG HUGS TO KYLE!!!!! That will be wonderful!! Thank you so much. Seriously, that WR area probably is something to be watched. Could be very exciting!

Kyle Mattson

Mon, Sep 9, 2013 : 3:46 p.m.

Hi Cash- We're working on a way for you to sort out just Ypsilanti news when we make the move. It may take a couple weeks, but hope to have it sooner than later!


Mon, Sep 9, 2013 : 7:57 a.m.

Yawn. More Propaganda. This will Not be going there. Simply trumpeting by an over-financed state agency. The Air Museum will not be saved. More's the pity . . .

Jaime Magiera

Mon, Sep 9, 2013 : 5:17 a.m.

Coincidentally, the October issue of "Popular Science" contains three articles about the future of automobile travel which touch on the topics discussed here on The article on autonomous vehicles does a good job of outlining the criteria for the three levels of automobile control. Overall, the article takes a balanced approach to the technological, financial and societal hurdles that lay ahead.


Mon, Sep 9, 2013 : 4:12 a.m.

YAY!!! Good news. Jobs again in Ypsilanti Township soon to come!

Anthony Clark

Mon, Sep 9, 2013 : 12:02 a.m.

"New connected vehicle research center could propel region to national spotlight." Yeah, and pigs could fly.


Sun, Sep 8, 2013 : 4:14 p.m.

i really want this to work out and benefit the local area and economy but i just don't see what the site will bring to the table. ford, GM and chrysler already all have extensive, state-of-the-art proving grounds within maybe 50 or 75 miles of here (chrysler in chelsea, GM in northville, ford in romeo). why is another test facility required and what can be done there that can't be done at one of the existing facilities? i just don't see the business case here.


Mon, Sep 9, 2013 : 11:14 a.m.

Sttc - I think that the intent of this new site is for collaborative efforts to include the OEM's plus the sub-tiers and government. The OEM's normally highly restrict access to their own test facilities.


Mon, Sep 9, 2013 : 5:38 a.m.

why do people keep voting me down? i'm asking an honest question: what will this project have that existing proving grounds don't have? i just want more information on the specifics of what the project will entail. maybe the details are still kind of sketchy at this point, or i am totally missing it, i am just not sure. i've just seen the old story play out before numerous times in various michigan towns: big plant closes, lots of pie in the sky ideas for redeveloping the site that will be the new saviour of the local economy, nothing ever coming to fruition. honestly i don't see why it just can't be subdivided into a small industrial park? i grew up in kalamazoo, there was a big GM stamping plant there that closed, ultimately they just cut the building in two, subdivided the space and leased it out to various medium and light industrial tenants... it actually turned out to be a fairly successful venture... nothing like the old GM plant did for the economy, but the site is pretty much completely leased and contributing to the tax rolls again.


Sun, Sep 8, 2013 : 3:47 p.m.

Thank goodness SPARK has expanded and now has offices in Ypsi and Lansing. Thank goodness they have increased their staff. Thank goodness they get tax money and don't have to generate any concrete proof of how the money is turned into an actual deliverable for the citizens whose tax money they get. It's a great sign that they've tripled their office locations.


Mon, Sep 9, 2013 : 4:57 p.m.

Yes, John, because using tax money to pay more than market value in order to solve the problem of vacant buildings is a perfect solution. Water Street is a perfect example. Hey, since that worked out so well in terms of fixing the "vacant land" problem, how about we just go the next step and fix the unemployment problem? Let's pay every unemployed person in Ypsilanti a salary of $36,000 per year to walk in circles in the Water Street area for 8 hours per day? Unemployment problem ALSO solved!


Mon, Sep 9, 2013 : 2:19 p.m.

"Is SPARK paying more than market value (due to the fact that they inexhaustible tax money to throw around), which enables the owner to do all the fixing up they need to?" How dare they pay more for a building than the depressed economy dictates it is worth! They should let it crumble and decay into a pile of rubble like the market dictates! No one goes against the will of the almighty market. No one.


Mon, Sep 9, 2013 : 2:17 p.m.

Unless SPARK start researching tinfoil hat technology, I'm guessing there are a few people here that won't be pleased with any answers given.

Steve Hendel

Mon, Sep 9, 2013 : 12:51 p.m.

Says you. Has there ever been an independent audit of Spark's performance claims?

Jaime Magiera

Mon, Sep 9, 2013 : 12:31 p.m.

The point is the use of the space for something active that benefits the community. SPARK is active and benefits the community.


Mon, Sep 9, 2013 : 10:57 a.m.

Jaime, how is SPARK being a tenant a resolution to a previous owner of the building not being able to get it fixed up? So a previous owner had 3 tenants, but couldn't fix up the building, then a NEW owner buys the building, and magically because SPARK is a prospective tenant, is able to fix up the building? I'm unsure of the cause/effect relationship here. Is SPARK paying more than market value (due to the fact that they inexhaustible tax money to throw around), which enables the owner to do all the fixing up they need to? Is SPARK a pleasant shopping experience that does OK replacing a bookstore and recordshop?

Jaime Magiera

Mon, Sep 9, 2013 : 4:59 a.m.

I'm actually glad they opened that office in Ypsilanti. A friend of my owned that building for 10 years and couldn't get it fixed up and in place to be a valuable part of the community (we had a bookstore, music club and recording studio there). The current owner, with Spark as a tenant, has made a great use of the space.


Sun, Sep 8, 2013 : 2:58 p.m.

What I find particularly interesting is that this was predicted decades ago. I remember when I was in elementary school our teacher showed us a Disney documentary film about the future that included a segment telling the viewer that at some time cars would be able to communicate with the road and other traffic and all you would have to do is get on a road and sit back and the car an infrastructure including the roadway would do all the work. I recall it depicted something like travel on a freeway than a city street, but the idea was the technology would control the speed and distance between each car, which would increase safe driving.

Jaime Magiera

Mon, Sep 9, 2013 : 4:55 a.m.

Disney's "Magic Highway" perhaps. He was an interesting futurist. Ed Schumacher, the guy who used to sit with the solar powered portable computer in the Diag, once said to me "The best science-fiction extrapolates the future from what is currently known". A good example in terms of this article is the movie "Minority Report". Spielberg actually hired technologists as technical advisors on the film (including the aforementioned Jaron Lanier). Note how in the movie the cars all follow a connected system until they break off the system in rural areas.


Sun, Sep 8, 2013 : 3:15 p.m.

Yes, it may have been social programming to expect such kind of master control when such youngsters were voting age.

Dog Guy

Sun, Sep 8, 2013 : 1:18 p.m.

A national spotlight can help this region during Michigan winter as we no-longer-drive our socialized cars to our socialist medicine centers. Will this national spotlight be solar powered?

Use Logic

Sun, Sep 8, 2013 : 1:12 p.m. Does this sale affect the Yankee Air Museum's effort to purchase a portion of the plant?

Lizzy Alfs

Sun, Sep 8, 2013 : 1:49 p.m.

Thanks for asking -- and like you said, no, Yankee Air Museum still has until October to save the funds to keep the bomber plant from being demolished and that would stay on the site.

Use Logic

Sun, Sep 8, 2013 : 1:16 p.m.

Nevermind...I read the related story at the top, and it says that it would not affect that potential sale. Thanks!

G. Orwell

Sun, Sep 8, 2013 : 1:10 p.m.

One major problem with connected cars is that the cars can be hacked and remotely controlled. This might even be possible today with cars that have electronic steering and fuel systems. Most new cars are already connected. For example, OnStar. OnStar can lock and unlock car doors. I am sure it can be designed, if not already, to control the steering and fuel systems.


Mon, Sep 9, 2013 : 2:23 p.m.

If we're talking about your average car theft or break-in, it is far easier to just break a window in classic smash-and-grab style than to worry about hacking sophisticated electronics. So, yes, it's possible to hack, just like most stuff that uses electronic encryption, but the cost and time involved is usually greater than the reward. A rock will get you into a car just as well as a complicated wireless hacking setup, and is readily available and cheap to acquire (free).

Jaime Magiera

Mon, Sep 9, 2013 : 4:37 a.m.

There was actually a paper on hacking the locking mechanisms of several luxury cars that was to be presented at the USENIX conference this summer. The car manufacturers asked the researchers not to provide detailed information. The courts stepped in and barred the presentation of the paper. The researcher did give a presentation that omitted the details of the paper itself. ("Dismantling Megamos Crypto: Wirelessly Lockpicking a Vehicle Immobilizer")


Sun, Sep 8, 2013 : 11:47 a.m.

"Connected Vehicles" will have an impact as great as the gasoline engine on automotive history. We're looking at eliminating most of the 31,000 deaths and 2.2 million injuries each year. Or raising gas mileage by over 30%. Add in the other benefits and you won't recognize travel in 20 years.

Jaime Magiera

Mon, Sep 9, 2013 : 5:10 a.m.

All crashes won't be eliminated. However, there is the possibility that it could be quite safe compared to manual driving. If you look at airplanes, there are still crashes, which are tragic because many people can die at once. However, overall, air travel is quite safe - more-so than manual automobile travel in fact (statistically)

Steve Hendel

Sun, Sep 8, 2013 : 2:41 p.m.

I meant "evidence" for the very specific and super-rosy predictions for the future benefits of this technology.


Sun, Sep 8, 2013 : 2:40 p.m.

There are two elements to the connected car: 1) cars to talking to each other and 2) cars talking with the infrastructure, i.e., traffic lights, warning signs, even local weather conditions, etc. While you can argue the former is attainable in the next 20 years to some extent the latter will never be achieved on the scale needed to eliminate all crashes. Think of the costs involved. Many fatalities occur with cars running into trees, turnovers, sliding on ice and losing control, etc. The days of the car driving itself that are affordable to even lease are decades away and require a huge investment for the redundancy required not to mention protection against silly litigation. Try as you may, you will never get to zero fatalities or even close to that. Commercial airliners are a great example where modern planes cost upwards of $100 million a copy and have the most advanced, state-of-the-art technology yet we will still have fatal crashes. Cars would never sell for even 1/1000th of that cost.

Jaime Magiera

Sun, Sep 8, 2013 : 12:54 p.m.

The train system is, for the most part, autonomous at this point.

Jaime Magiera

Sun, Sep 8, 2013 : 12:53 p.m.

Evidence that autonomous vehicles are the next step in transportation? Look at the research, legislative decisions and business decisions related to it. Evidence that lives will be saved? That's a hard one to pinpoint. As Jaron Lanier has pointed out, the problem with connected systems is that a failures could be catastrophic - as opposed to manual driving, in which accidents may affect only one or two cars. A significant portion of the research on these systems should be in regards to redundancy and manual overrides. Ultimately, we'll be faced with a (human) cost-benefit analysis. So far, it looks like the benefits will outweigh the detriments.


Sun, Sep 8, 2013 : 12:50 p.m.

I thought we were all going to be riding in trains then.

Steve Hendel

Sun, Sep 8, 2013 : 12:13 p.m.



Sun, Sep 8, 2013 : 11:34 a.m.

What about opening SPARK'S books and showing us where our tax money is going?

Kai Petainen

Sun, Sep 8, 2013 : 1:56 p.m.

Here are the SPARK forms Here are the SPARK Foundation forms. Note -- SPARK is a 501c3 and a 501c6

Kai Petainen

Sun, Sep 8, 2013 : 1:46 p.m.

You can see how they spend it. You can walk into their office and ask for the 990 tax forms. Make sure they give you both sets (SPARK and SPARK Foundation). They are required to give them to you.

Steve Hendel

Sun, Sep 8, 2013 : 11:31 a.m.

Are there significant tax abatements or other public subsidies involved here ? Is GM or the RACER Trust paying for cleaning up the environmental contamination presumably caused by GM's past activities? Can SE Michigan realistically hope to jump ahead of the West Coast, where they are already field-testing driverless cars? These are important questions that need answers BEFORE we accept the boosterism generated by SPARK et al.

Basic Bob

Sun, Sep 8, 2013 : 1:06 p.m.

Most manufacturers have research and development facilities in Michigan, while most do not have facilities in California. The California test bed is used by BMW, Mercedes, Toyota, VW, and Nissan. Even those companies might prefer to develop and test their systems in the Michigan, where costs are lower. The technology is portable, and could be relocated to Michigan easily, closer to the knowledge base.