A defunct General Motors plant in Ypsilanti Township that once pumped out World War II-era bombers is on track to become an autonomous car testing facility after a state board unanimously approved a nearly $3 million grant to get the project started.
The Michigan Strategic Fund board approved the first grant Tuesday. The center will request another $17 million in state aid for the project, but officials said it's unclear when that will happen.
Eric Shreffler of the Michigan Economic Development Corp. said the money is for initial legal work relating to the old GM plant's environmental history and other consulting they'll do before acquiring the property for the American Center for Mobility to develop the test facility.
The group seeks $79 million total for the project, which would include federal funds. Shreffler says some private investors are interested but couldn't say who or for how much at this point.
John Maddox, CEO of the American Center for Mobility, said he's in contact with federal officials who may authorize some of the remaining $59 million they're seeking to complete the project. Maddox is a former official for the U.S. Department of Transportation.
He said the project doesn't yet have a firm timeline, but the first step is preliminary legal work and negotiating the land price.
"This technology can completely revolutionize the way we move people and goods," Maddox told board members Tuesday. He later added that it was "a blank slate and an incredible opportunity."
The project was highlighted by Gov. Rick Snyder during his state of the state address in January of 2016, when he said he's working with Michigan's congressional representatives to help make it happen.
"Michigan is proud of its auto heritage, but our goal is to be the leader in this industry for generations to come," Gov. Rick Snyder said in a statement Tuesday. "We need to stay on the cutting edge of technology connected with our vehicles."
Snyder said the approval of the start-up funds will help Michigan stay a "leader" and make "more and better jobs."
The Michigan Department of Transportation and the University of Michigan are also involved in the project, along with the Business Leaders for Michigan and Ann Arbor SPARK, which describes itself as an "engine for economic development," supporting high tech and innovative businesses in the Ann Arbor region.
The project would help do track testing and road simulation, and include a high speed loop that's supposed to emulate a real highway. It also would include urban, rural and suburban areas to test the high-tech cars.
The board also unanimously approved another $5 million grant on Tuesday to be dispensed over the next five years to encourage Chinese companies to invest in Michigan.
The Michigan Strategic Fund board — part of the Michigan Economic Development Corp. — authorized the money to create a "business gateway" between Michigan and China and help generate jobs while boosting foreign investment in the state.
The project could create job opportunities, said MEDC official Tony Vernaci, but it would not itself create jobs. MEDC spokeswoman Emily Gerkin Guerrant says the Michigan China Innovation Center's role is to "generate leads" that could provide incentives for companies to move here.
Gov. Rick Snyder has visited China to encourage trade and investment.