Howes: Like it or not, self-driving cars are coming

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

Beware, drivers: Cars that steer and think for themselves are coming faster than a Corvette in the left lane.

The federal government’s release this week of guidelines governing autonomous vehicles and the software driving them is perhaps the clearest signal yet that the race to field such cars is blowing past theory and heading straight to reality.

Not necessarily for everyday folks long accustomed to driving themselves and probably always will. But definitely for ride-sharing companies operating in urban areas and the manufacturers who will produce the hardware in far greater numbers than the test vehicles plying proving grounds from Michigan to Silicon Valley.

“It’s real,” says Glenn Stevens, executive director of MICHAuto, the Detroit Regional Chamber’s mobility initiative. “The technology’s real, and it has to be: one million people died on global roads last year and 963 people died on Michigan roads in 2015.”

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s guidelines, detailed by Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, are still being digested by industry executives, federal and state lawmakers. They say the proposed rules are a positive step forward and show a remarkable degree of collaboration between the industry, regulators and lawmakers at both the state and federal levels.

That’s often not the case. The bailouts of 2008 and the bankruptcies of 2009 were contentious dramas that cast Detroit’s top executives and the United Auto Workers leadership as hapless fools who needed to be rescued from themselves. And two administrations, one Republican and the other Democratic, obliged — but not without exacting humbling concessions.

Continuing battles over federal fuel economy rules pit regulators, their like-minded patrons in Congress and often the White House against an industry that A) makes a bigger portion of its profits from trucks and SUVs because they B) sell a lot more of them to U.S. consumers than fuel-sipping compacts and subcompacts.

This time may be different. The NHTSA’s autonomous-vehicle rules appear to recognize the competitive pace, the transformational import of the technology, the pressure to commercialize it, and the need for government regulators to move more quickly. All of which, for now, is considered generally positive.

“It’s a logical, supportive approach — and needed for the industry,” a ranking executive said in an interview Wednesday. “We need the framework that states can move to.”

And they are. A package of bills governing how and where autonomous vehicles could be developed, tested and driven on Michigan roads has cleared the state Senate and a House committee and is expected to be considered by the full House within the next two months.

“I would say about 90 percent of it is complementary and we’re going to be able to work within the federal guidelines,” state Sen. Mike Kowal, R-White Lake, said in an interview. “This is totally new territory. It’s moving at such a rate of speed because the technology keeps moving on us.”

Exactly right. Driver-assistance technology, precursors to autonomous modes, already is increasingly embedded in new cars and trucks. There’s blind-spot monitoring, adaptive braking and cruise control and lane-correction; automatic stop/start engine management is being deployed to save fuel (and to help meet federal fuel economy averages).

Change is coming, and it will not be easy. The death of an Ohio man driving his Tesla electric vehicle in its misleadingly named Autopilot mode understandably underscores skepticism of autonomous vehicles, even if it isn’t disqualifying.

But industry executives nonetheless predict it won’t be long before one or more automakers adequately vet their autonomous technology, achieve necessary safety metrics and begin to produce vehicles by the thousands — initially for sale to ride-sharing companies.

That’s why the state of Michigan and a loose coalition of business groups, automakers and suppliers are rallying behind the Legislature’s autonomous-vehicle bills and supporting Mcity in Ann Arbor and the American Center for Mobility effort in Ypsilanti.

Getting the government bureaucrats on the same page will be a central challenge, however. Historically, federal regulators set standards for vehicle safety while state regulators and legislators set rules governing drivers. That includes licensing and enforcing traffic laws.

In the autonomous world as currently envisioned, that distinction would begin to disappear and harmonize around one standard. A truly autonomous vehicle would be both vehicle and operator, a singular entity controlled by sensors, radars, computers and satellite technology; it could see around corners, anticipate traffic jams and chart detours.

And it would change driving as generations have known it — whether we like it or not.

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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.