12/13/2016 | 3 MINUTE READ

Michigan Steers Toward Driverless Future

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While automakers and suppliers continue to partner with tech companies and open Silicon Valley offices, Michigan is working hard to ensure much of the research and development for next-generation vehicles stays in the state.   

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While automakers and suppliers continue to partner with tech companies and open Silicon Valley offices, Michigan is working hard to ensure much of the research and development for next-generation vehicles stays in the state.   

This month Michigan became the first state in the U.S. to pass comprehensive legislation for the testing, use and sale of self-driving vehicles. The new law, which was signed by Gov. Rick Snyder, significantly expands a Michigan law passed in 2013—six other states and Washington, D.C., have since adopted similar regulations—that allows developers to test autonomous vehicles on public roads.

The new law permits driverless shuttles and automated vehicles that aren't equipped with steering wheels and foot pedal controls (or human backup drivers). The measure clears the way for so-called “robo-taxis” being developed by ride-hailing companies such as Lyft and Uber. It also permits tested and certified self-driving vehicles to be sold to and operated by the general public.

The legislation was developed with input and support from a mix of automakers, tech companies and mobility services, ranging from Fiat Chrysler, Ford, General Motors and Toyota to Google and Lyft. The law is designed to be forward compatible to take into account future technical advances and mobility services as they are developed.

In addition, the Michigan Council on Future Mobility—an advisory group to the state’s Dept. of Transportation—was formed to recommend policies aimed at industrywide performance and safety standards for autonomous vehicles. The council also will regulate connected vehicle networks and how traffic and crash data will be collected and shared.

The new law builds on several other autonomous vehicle initiatives in Michigan. In mid-2015, the University of Michigan’s Mobility Transformation Center opened the 32-acre Mcity proving grounds for self-driving and connected vehicles in Ann Arbor, Mich. The $6.5 million complex's driving course has 13 intersections (including angled crossways and a traffic circle), a bridge and tunnel, streetlights, traffic signals, lane markings, gravel roads, construction barriers, sidewalks, bus stops, parked cars, obstructed views and 40 building facades. There also is a four-lane highway with entrance and exit ramps, plus simulated pedestrians, bicyclists and traffic jams.

Members can use the facility to test various autonomous vehicle technologies in controlled real-world conditions. There currently are 17 top-tier partners, each committing $1 million over three years. Another four dozen second-tier members have pledged $150,000 apiece. The group aims to have a shared network of connected and self-driving vehicles on public roads in Ann Arbor by 2021. The fleet will include 2,000 automated vehicles and 9,000 connected vehicles—three times the current number on the city's streets.

Kettering University is opening a smaller Mobility Research Center to test electric and self-driving vehicles, safety systems and connected vehicle technologies. The center, which is partially funded by a General Motors grant, includes various test courses and a dedicated 4G LTE cellular network. The 4G system operates at 10 times the data speed of public cellular networks, which enables testing of vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications.

But Michigan's most significant program is the American Center for Mobility (ACM). Earlier this month, state and local partners held a ground-breaking ceremony for the massive 332-acre complex, which is located in Ypsilanti Township on the site of Ford's former Willow Run plant that produced B-24 airplane bombers during World War II. More recently, General Motors operated a powertrain facility on the site.

Described as the largest autonomous vehicle testing complex in the world, ACM will include high-speed tracks, a 700-ft curved tunnel, off-road areas and highway overpasses with multilevel interchanges. More companies, universities and government partners may participate in ACM, which plans a first-phase opening in 2017.

In addition to attracting companies, ACM, Mcity and Michigan’s new laws are expected to help the state compete for top engineers and software developers. Convincing this new generation of innovators to take the wheel will be the true driving force in the auto industry and Michigan’s future.