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The race to put self-driving vehicles on the road won't happen without input from Michigan and Detroit, at least not according to panelists at the New York Times' TimesTalk in Detroit on Tuesday night.

Rebecca Blumenstein, New York Times deputy managing editor, led Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder; Kevin Johnson, president and CEO of Detroit Economic Growth Corp.;Raj Kapoor, chief strategy officer at Lyft; and Sherif Marakby, president and CEO of Ford Autonomous Vehicles, through an hour-long talk focused on the "Battle for Autonomous Cars."

The panelists made one thing clear: Michigan is a leader in the autonomous vehicle race thanks to testing sites Mcity in Ann Arbor and the sprawling American Center for Mobility in Ypsilanti, and the companies that test and have headquarters here.

But that doesn't mean Michigan's officials and leaders at Ford Motor Co. and other automotive companies don't want to partner with technology companies on the West Coast to solve transportation issues.

"I'm not sure it needs to be a debate," Marakby said. "The success of autonomous vehicles really needs both (places). You really need both to make this work."

Ford plans to launch its first autonomous vehicles in 2021 in the form of a fleet of new hybrid vehicles that seamlessly can alternate between transporting people and transporting goods. Crosstown rival GM plans to launch a fleet of Cruise AVs vehicles next year. Google's Waymo outfit will launch a fleet later this year.

Those first launches will be small, hyper-controlled systems in most cases. The autonomous vehicles will run in small areas of large, dense cities, and only in perfect, sunny weather. 

There is a lot of work to do within the companies developing the vehicles and for the cities hoping to host these futuristic vehicles, the panelists said.

One of the biggest challenges is updating infrastructure. The vehicles will be able to "communicate" with stoplights and other road-side infrastructure to help them move through a city. That means nothing if municipalities don't have the technology available to communicate back.

"If we don't get there quickly, then we'll have all this technology and no place to put it," Johnson said, adding that Michigan has another chance to lead. "This is a very competitive space that we're in, and someone has to be the center of excellence."

Michiganshould strive to attract companies to test and develop the technology here, Johnson said. He and Kapoor said that shouldn't mean Michigan, Detroit or the companies testing here should hole up in this state and never leave.

Kapoor equated the research and development going on now among automotive and technology companies to that which the airlines adopted for safety: any accidents and the findings that come out of an investigation should be shared, he said. 

"It will impact Michigan," he said. "It will impact Detroit ... it'll impact Silicon Valley."

Detroit's relationship with Silicon Valley has evolved in recent years amid the self-driving marathon race. What began as a competition has become more of a partnership. General Motors Co. acquired a Silicon Valley-based Cruise AV to lead its push into robotic vehicles. Ford bought a majority stake in Argo AI, which is based in Pittsburgh, but led by engineers with histories at Google and Uber.

On Tuesday, a Ford specialist for self-driving vehicles, John Shutko, published a blog that called for all self-driving vehicle developers that intend to launch fully autonomous vehicles to work together to develop a system that would allow the vehicles to communicate with pedestrians and others outside of the vehicles.

The intention would be to signal via lights or sounds to pedestrians that an autonomous vehicle intends to yield, stop or accelerate, among other actions, much in the same way a human driver might signal intentions to someone outside of the vehicle.

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau

ithibodeau@detroitnews.com

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