Self-driving cars traverse Detroit-Windsor Tunnel

Ian Thibodeau
The Detroit News

The push to get self-driving cars safely on the road is an international effort, and Michigan’s role became even more important Monday.

Just after 7 a.m., engineers from automotive suppliers Magna International Inc. and Continental left downtown Detroit in a Cadillac ATS and a Chrysler 300 — both with self-driving capabilities. The engineers drove the vehicles through the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel under the Detroit River, through Ontario to the Blue Water Bridge, and crossed back into the U.S. at Port Huron and continued to Traverse City.

The cars arrived at their Traverse City destination just before 5 p.m.

“We drove about seven hours and, of that seven hours, 92 percent of it was hands-free and feet-free and eyes off the road,” said Tom Toma, global product manager for Magna.

The cars were greeted by applauding crowds participating in this week’s Center for Automotive Research Management Briefing Seminars in Traverse City. Afterward, Michigan Department of Transportation and the Ontario Ministry of Transportation officials signed a memorandum of understanding to “promote and foster growth of connected and autonomous technology testing and deployment.”

“This will easily translate into training and employment opportunities for systems engineering and development jobs in Ontario and beyond,” said Steven Del Duca, Minister of Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation. “I have no doubt it will continue to attract new business opportunities and enable us to respond quickly to the rapid pace of technology.”

The vehicles feature Level 3 autonomous technology and drove themselves on the highways along that route, but the engineers were in control across the borders and through customs. The test is meant to collect data through the vehicles various sensors to determine a number of things, Toma said.

First, the engineers want to figure out what sort of signals, sensors, systems and other infrastructure might be needed at the border so that an autonomous vehicle cooperates with border patrol officers. We’re still more than a decade away from anyone owning an autonomous vehicle, Toma said, but international border crossing is a scenario that a consumer might encounter. The system needs to be in place.

Steffen Hartmann, a technical project lead with Continental, said the teams would test to see how the car’s self-driving brain acts in the tunnel and on the bridge. The system wouldn’t be engaged while crossing the borders, but the engineers would be able to tell if that system could even work in the underwater tunnel, for example.

“We want a 360-degree understanding of our environment, as always,” Hartmann said.

The tests come as foreign and domestic automakers, suppliers and Silicon Valley work to put safe, foolproof self-driving vehicles on the road. Several companies already have semi-autonomous systems, or driver-assist programs that can pilot the vehicle, but require the driver to watch the road and keep their hands on the wheel.

Those companies have been testing autonomous driving on public roads for years, but the Detroit-Windsor drive is unique, combining a series of scenarios into one long test. It’s another step from Michigan’s government to make the state an attractive place to test this technology. In 2016, Gov. Rick Snyder signed a package of bills to allow autonomous vehicles to operate on the state’s public roads.

Ontario also became the first Canadian province to set regulations permitting the same testing that year.

“Today’s test drive is a great example of the continued collaboration and innovation between Ontario and Michigan,” said Steven Del Duca, Ontario’s Minister of Transportation. “This new memorandum of understanding and our recent commitment of $80 million for an Autonomous Vehicle Innovation Network signify the importance of a strong, cohesive partnership and continued investment in the development of [autonomous and connected-vehicle] technologies and the mobility sector.”

The City of Detroit did not have a hand in Monday’s test, though the city’s Chief Mobility Officer Mark de la Vergne said the test was exciting. More than 7,000 people cross the border for work in Michigan every day.

But de la Vergne said the city is preparing to begin its own mobility push. While self-driving vehicles might not be the most important mobility solution in Detroit, the technology developed by these auto companies and suppliers could be applied in other mobility sectors.

“We’re interested in saying how can we start to improve the way people get around in the city,” he said.

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau