New Proposed Laws, Collaborations Pave Way for Driverless Future

This has been a banner week for Michigan-centric news pertaining to the development of driverless vehicles.

On Wednesday, Google announced in a Google+ post that, after placing a team of employees in the metro Detroit area for “the past few years,” it would open a facility in suburban Novi, MI, to develop self-driving car technology.

The 53,000-square-foot facility will allow Google to “collaborate more easily and access Michigan’s top talent in vehicle development and engineering. … Our engineers, working with local partners, will further develop and refine self-driving technology,” the post explained.

The first project Google is working on is the self-driving Chrysler Pacifica hybrid minivan. Earlier this month, Google and Fiat Chrysler announced they were partnering on the development of a fleet of 100 self-driving minivans, and although some reports have characterized the new facility in Novi to be a result of that partnership, the Google+ post seems to indicate the tech giant plans a more agnostic approach. And while some of the more wild-eyed idealists in Silicon Valley were hoping Google would be able to crack autonomous vehicle technology without heavy involvement from an old-school legacy industry like automotive, the announcement seems to confirm that the company does, in fact, need significant participation from car manufacturers to get its vehicles to market.

Adding to the Google announcement was one today from Michigan’s Legislature that shows a surprising amount of foresight for a governing body that has spent most of the year arguing over how to put out the fires caused by crisis after crisis: State Sen. Mike Kowall (R-White Lake Township) introduced bills that would pave the way for Michigan to lead the development of self-driving cars.

The legislation would allow self-driving cars on any of Michigan’s 122,000 miles of roads—no human driver required. It would also permit the operation of automakers’ on-demand, self-driving fleets, like the Chevy Bolts GM and Lyft are currently building.

“It’s an entire mobility program encouraging anybody and everybody that’s interested in autonomous vehicles to come to Michigan and do their research and development, and put it to practical uses,” Kowall told the Detroit News.

Although Kowall represents the district that includes Novi, he told the News that Google’s announcement took him by surprise because the company had “played their cards pretty close to their vest.” Current Michigan law calls for a human driver to be present in autonomous vehicles, and only seven states have thus far passed any legislation at all concerning the testing of driverless cars. Governor Rick Snyder reportedly supports the bills, and Michigan Department of Transportation director Kirk Steudle called Michigan’s proposed legislation the most far-reaching yet and something that could serve as a national model.

There’s another reason for fast-tracking the testing of driverless cars on Michigan roads: People need to see the vehicles functioning without incident before they can trust the technology, according to a research report released this week by the University of Michigan.

Brandon Schoettle and Michael Sivak of U-M’s Transportation Research Institute analyzed motorists’ opinions about vehicle automation, including their overall concerns about riding in driverless cars.

The research found that roughly 46 percent of drivers want to keep full control while driving, while nearly 39 percent would be OK with a partially self-driving vehicle as long as occasional interventions by a human driver were possible. Just under 16 percent would rather ride in a completely self-driving vehicle than a traditional car. A whopping two-thirds of the 618 survey respondents said they’re moderately or very concerned about going completely autonomous, and half of the respondents had similar concerns about partially self-driving cars. The findings seem to indicate that a fair amount of consumer education will be necessary before putting self-driving vehicles on the market.

But before Michigan or any other place can win the race to get autonomous … Next Page »

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Sarah Schmid Stevenson is the editor of Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET_AA

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