Michigan Leads the World’s Research on Driverless Cars

MICHIGAN (Feb. 24, 2014) – “We are the state to put the world on wheels,” said Kirk Steudle, Michigan Department of Transportation director.

Michigan lawmakers, including Governor Rick Snyder, say they’re determined to keep Michigan at the forefront of automobile development.

While the thought of driverless cars can bring the futuristic idea of “The Jetsons” to mind, driverless car technology is already here. You may have seen it in this year`s Super Bowl ad where automatic brakes override distracted driving.

Lawmakers like Senator Mike Kowall said Michigan is a world leader in car research.

“I thought where better to keep the research and development? We’re probably looking at close to a $1 trillion effect on just the Big Three,” said Senator Kowall.

Late last year, Governor Snyder signed Senate Bill 169 into law, to approve testing of driverless cars on Michigan roads. He and Steudle said safety is a driving force behind autonomous vehicles.

“One of our goals is to drive fatality rates down to zero. Last year there were over 900 people killed on Michigan roadways. If we can get cars that refuse to crash, we can save those 900 people,” added Steudle.

At the 2014 North American International Auto Show, Governor Snyder announced a partnership with the University of Michigan and the Mobility Transformation Center (MTC). The MTC is a public and private research effort to move people and freight with automated technology. The goal is for Ann Arbor to become the first U.S. city with a fleet of “connected,” driverless cars by 2021.

“By and large we don’t see being able to make it to automated vehicles, at least not driverless vehicles, high levels of automation, without also having this communication element. The communication really serves as the foundation for the future of automated vehicles,” explained Jim Sayer, research scientist with the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI).

Researchers say the University`s “Safety Pilot Model Deployment” program is the biggest group of “connected” vehicles in the world.

For the past 18 months, UMTRI has been collecting data from more than 2800 “connected” vehicles. Drivers volunteered their personal vehicles, including a few heavy trucks, motorcycles and a bicycle, to be installed with small radios that essentially talk to each other.

Researchers say these radios listen and transmit signals to other “connected” cars and city infrastructure, like streetlights and curbs, that are also equipped with similar radios in Ann Arbor.

“What we’ve done with the Safety Pilot Model Deployment is we’ve created a sandbox; a sandbox that automotive manufacturers and suppliers and developers can come and evaluate the products that they envision, both connected and in the future automated vehicles as well,” added Sayer.

More than 21 and a half million miles of driving data has been collected. It all goes to the U.S. Department of Transportation to show how “connected” technology between cars and infrastructure could lower fatal car accidents and energy consumption.

“We’re going to go through, I think, a 15 to 20-year period of dumb cars to smart cars and the transition in-between,” said Steudle.

Steudle also said he expects automation to help with road redesigns, and believes it will start with Michigan freeways.

“If the car is smart enough to drive itself, and it’s not texting or eating a sandwich, or doing all kinds of other distracting things, it’s going to go right down the middle of that lane and maybe move a little bit. But you don’t need that space between them. So a future highway could have vehicles closer together,” explained Steudle.

Steudle said driverless cars would also help cut congestion and traffic jams.

“The computers in the car will be smart enough to say ‘here’s the progression of all these traffic signals,’ and ‘driver, if you would go 36 miles per hour, you will make the progression and you won’t have to stop at any of these,’” said Steudle.

Officials said driverless cars mean fewer wrecks which could help lower insurance rates.

“We’ve never seen insurance rates go down, but this would be a good reason for them to go down, if you can pretty well assure people that your car is not going to get into an accident,” said Senator Kowall.

There are still a few issues to be worked out like funding and communication security between cars, and then which should come first, connected cars or infrastructure?

“I think we are very well-situated with the building blocks, and we are in the lead. But I also think this is like all technology, it changes, it moves fast, and we’ve got to keep moving in front of it,” said Steudle.

Coming this Spring, the University of Michigan is building a 32-acre autonomous village on its North Campus, where all cars and infrastructure will be “connected” to enhance this research.

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