Panel: Michigan should lead autonomous car development

Michael Martinez
The Detroit News

Michigan should lead the development of autonomous vehicle technology and needs to change the public’s perception that it’s an old-world manufacturing hub, automotive executives and public officials said Wednesday.

“It’s about branding,” Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, said in an afternoon panel at the Mackinac Policy Conference. “This is a very high-tech state. Folks tend to view Michigan as a place with factories and smokestacks ... we’re a lot more than that.”

State officials are trying to change that perception. Earlier Wednesday, Gov. Rick Snyder announced a new marketing effort, called Planet M, to brand the Great Lakes State as the top destination for testing autonomous and connected car technology.

“We’re proud to be the center of the automotive industry in the world, we’ve seen tremendous growth and success with it for decades and decades,” Snyder said at the Detroit Regional Chamber’s 2016 Mackinac Policy Conference. “It’s on a high point for today, but we need a plan for the future.

“And there will be this transition from the automobile industry to the mobility industry.”

Snyder said Planet M isn’t just about self-driving vehicles, it’s about making Michigan roadways safer and more efficient.

Planet M is a consortium representing the public and private sectors, non-governmental organizations and academic institutions. While not a formal organization, some of the early partners working to advance Michigan’s image and mobility attractiveness include the Michigan Economic Development Corp., Michigan Department of Transportation, Business Leaders for Michigan, MichAuto and University Research Corridor.

“Pulling this all together is a very, very unique and unusual partnership,” said Michigan Department of Transportation Director Kirk T. Steudle. He called Planet M a “common umbrella” to promote the state’s mobility solutions. “Frankly, this is about economic development as well and understanding that we can leverage these great assets that we have.”

Officials are touting Mcity, the state’s 30-acre vehicle test site in Ann Arbor; its connected corridor along Interstate 696 that allows vehicles and traffic lights and roadside sensors to “talk” to each other; and the proposed 335-acre American Center for Mobility that would turn the former Willow Run Bomber Plant into another autonomous car test bed.

“Michigan has the opportunity ... we should be the leader,” Peters said. “This should be driven right here in Michigan. We’ve got infrastructure that we’re building out.”

Lear Corp. CEO Matthew Simocini echoed Peters’ comments, saying developing the technology was Michigan’s “birthright.”

The new branding effort comes a week after sweeping legislation was introduced in the state Senate that aims to make Michigan the nation’s leader in autonomous vehicle testing by allowing manufacturers to produce and sell self-driving cars here and clearing the way for their use on state roadways.

General Motors Co. President Dan Ammann, speaking on Mackinac Island Wednesday, said the Detroit carmaker is supportive of that self-driving car legislation.

“Michigan has a great opportunity to lead and an opportunity that it must seize,” he said. “We encourage the state to take the necessary steps to create an environment that fosters the growth of this new transportation model.”

GM earlier this year invested $500 million for a 9 percent stake in Lyft Inc. The companies are working to test a fleet of self-driving Chevrolet Bolt EVs and Ammann now has a seat on Lyft’s board of directors. The self-driving Bolt EV fleet could pick up passengers for testing within a couple of years, The Detroit News previously reported.

GM also created Maven, a car-sharing business with service now announced in five U.S. cities, including Ann Arbor.

Ammann said one of the bills introduced in the state Senate would allow for an on-demand network of ride-sharing services which would let the public experience a self-driving vehicle in a safe and controlled manner. “This bill could be a game-changer for Michigan,” he said.

Ken Washington, vice president of research and advanced engineering at Ford Motor Co., spoke with Peters and Simocini, saying the Dearborn automaker is transitioning to become both an auto and a mobility company.

“We’re talking about this amazing inflection point we’re all standing in,” he said. “(Detroit and Silicon Valley) are crashing together to create amazing new opportunities for our business and society.”

Washington said Ford expects a fully autonomous car to be on the road by the end of the decade. Ammann on Wednesday would not give a timeline for when he expects self-driving cars to be on the road.

Still, many challenges remain. Legal teams are grappling with the legal implications of insurance, liability and ethics. “We’re on the cusp of something we can’t even wrap our head around,” he said.

The solutions, the panel agreed, will be driven by a combination of technology startups and traditional automakers. Simocini said Michigan has the talent to drive the innovation, and he can attract anybody to Detroit.

“We’re sitting on top of the biggest cluster of automotive talent in the world,” Simocini said. “No country has the amount of automotive talent we have in the tri-county area of Detroit, and we need to leverage it.”

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