Pittsburgh — Don’t believe all the hype that Michigan is the epicenter of the auto industry’s mobility revolution — not yet, anyway.
At the confluence of three mighty rivers here, the old “Steel City” is hipper and more economically vibrant than its tired Rust Belt caricature. It’s also well on its way to making a legitimate play for its piece of leadership in the development of self-driving cars.
This town’s doing it with the active participation of Carnegie Mellon University’s robotics expertise, ride-sharing giant Uber Technologies Inc. and storied Detroit automotive names like Delphi Automotive PLC, the United Kingdom-based supplier with executive offices in Troy.
Delphi’s acquisition of a Pittsburgh-based startup called Ottomatika and its new partnership with an Israeli startup, Mobileye N.V., aims to set a new standard for self-driving technology sought around the world. Its alternative, set to debut next month at the CES electronics show in Las Vegas, challenges the largely go-it-alone autonomous vehicle strategies of industry giants like General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Corp.
The specially equipped Audi SQ5 developed by Delphi and Mobileye carries six cameras, radar and six “liDAR” sensors that use laser light to detect barriers and objects. In a brief demonstration around an industrial park on the outskirts of town, the car shows perfect driving manners — maintain the 25 mph speed limit, signal at every intersection, and no right turn on red.
“This is the equivalent of what we’ve got (testing) in Singapore and deployed there every day,” says Glen DeVos, Delphi’s vice president of services. “This region is becoming an important tech hub for us. What we do here in Pittsburgh is the heart of the automated driving system.”
But it’s not the only tech hub for the fast-emerging mobility space. The continually morphing autonomous ecosystem of software development, hardware engineering and good ol’ auto manufacturing expertise is commanding more attention from Detroit to Silicon Valley and many places in between.
Michigan and its hometown auto industry can still claim leadership in connected and autonomous vehicle research. Of the 195 test beds in the United States, an annual study by the Ann Arbor-based Center for Automotive Research says 49 are in Michigan. Trailing in second is California at 35 sites; Pennsylvania has three.
Globally, Japan claims the same number of connected and autonomous sites as the state of Michigan. Germany is a close second at 47 sites — confirmation that the amalgam of the global auto industry in the United States with the world of software developers is likely to put an unmistakably American stamp on the mobility movement.
“There’s no one center of expertise,” says Glenn Stevens, executive director of the Detroit Regional Chamber’s MICHauto initiative. “This kind of work is going on all over the world. These companies, like Ford and General Motors, have to deploy around the world.”
Yes, they do. The transition to a driverless future is fast approaching — whatever the price of fuel. It’s not because American consumers deeply in love with their trucks and SUVs are clamoring for their own self-driving rides. They aren’t, as surveys and sales of hybrid and full-electric vehicles demonstrate.
The biggest driver is the commercial response to stiff regulatory requirements in such huge foreign markets as China and Europe. Their aggressive targets for cutting emissions, coupled with their size, are combining to push automakers, suppliers and software developers to move more quickly than many U.S. consumers are prepared to follow.
“The world is converging,” says Mary Gustanski, vice president of engineering and program management at Delphi. “Around the world, China and Germany are not backing off. Germany said ... by 2030, zero-emissions vehicles only.”
No one can do it all. Not Detroit or Pittsburgh, Silicon Valley or the hotshot software sector Israel has spent years nurturing. For now, everyone has a role. Who emerges as the leader is a question still very much in search of an answer.
It’s still early, and the self-driving path is fraught with challenges and rude awakenings. Google Inc. and Apple Inc. are reining in expectations that they’ll soon be in the car business itself. The auto industry is cleaving into those who have the engineering capacity to develop self-driving vehicles and those who do not.
Suppliers like Delphi and Mobileye are jointly developing an autonomous technology they can sell to those who can’t muster their own. They clearly understand the biggest change in transportation since Henry Ford’s Model T is coming fast — and they’re angling for a piece of the action.
Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.