Michigan testing autonomous mapping by state cars

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Michigan Department of Transportation Director Kirk Steudle’s car will collect data everywhere he drives and send it to a private-sector company that is developing new driverless and connected-vehicle technology.

Steudle is one of two officials who will participate in a pilot project to test the possibility of attaching “machine vision devices” to snow plows, police cars or other government vehicles to passively map changing roadway conditions across the state.

The goal is a “hyper-accurate, high-definition map database” that could be accessed by autonomous vehicles, said John Peracchio, co-chairman of the Michigan Council on Future Mobility, noting collected data could include dog-eared lane markings, potholes, cracks or other unexpected features.

“If you talk to any car company, except perhaps for Tesla, they will tell you that these maps are required to operate highly automated and autonomous vehicles safely in this state,” Peracchio said Monday in a roundtable discussion with Gov. Rick Snyder.

Michigan’s pilot project is believed to be the first of its kind in the country. The state is partnering with Continental Automotive Systems in Auburn Hills, a subsidiary of German auto supplier Continental AG.

“It’s not tracking,” said Steudle, a guinea pig for the initial pilot. “It’s picking up data that goes down the road. That data never goes into our network. It’s captured on the car and given directly to Continental.”

Mobility Council leaders discussed the project Monday as they presented their second annual report and potential policy changes to the governor. Snyder appointed the 21-member advisory under a 2016 state law designed to allow the public to buy and use fully self-driving cars when they are available.

The new council report was largely completed before an Uber self-driving car struck and killed a pedestrian in Arizona, which has raised new questions about the technology, liability and regulations.

Snyder called the crash a “terrible thing” but noted experts are still investigating before drawing conclusions about the incident.

“It’s important we get that,” he said. “No one ever wants to see anyone hurt in an accident, but we have thousands of people die every year on the road. How do we learn from that and how do we move forward in a way that’s always going to be safer?”

In its report released Monday, the mobility council urged Michigan policy makers to consider new cybersecurity measures to protect autonomous vehicle technology and data, along with a series of updates to state liability and insurance laws.

The council commissioned the Michigan State University College of Law to review state law for terms like “operate” and “drive” that may need to be amended to reflect the possibility of driverless cars. The University of Michigan Law school is developing a digital mobility law journal to address future legal challenges.

“To whom, or I should I say to what, do you give the ticket to if an autonomous vehicle misbehaves on the highway,” Peracchio said, explaining the type of questions the new technology poses.

With Detroit automakers, suppliers and universities helping push new driverless vehicle technologies, Michigan is considered a national leader in the emerging industry. Snyder and other officials noted the American Center for Mobility at Willow Run and the M-City testing facility at UM in Ann Arbor.

“Mobility has a transformational impact,” Snyder said, suggesting the technology will eventually improve road safety, transportation for disabled or disadvantaged residents and infrastructure efficiency.

Autonomous vehicles could eventually cost people who work as taxi, truck or delivery drivers their jobs, Snyder noted, but could also create opportunities.

“Let’s be proactive and not just reactive when it comes to areas that may be disappearing, because if you plan far enough ahead, I believe there are reasonable ways to address it than rather than waiting for it to become a crisis.”

Snyder noted that Washtenaw Community College has already created a program to train students for careers as “mobility technicians” to service radar, lidar or other specialized autonomous vehicle systems.

“Every auto dealer in the country, every car repair place, will most likely have mobility technicians,” Snyder said.