Howes: Revolutionary self-driving rules pushing Detroit

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

Michigan Sen. Gary Peters has long worried that arcane federal rules would be the biggest obstacle to American development of self-driving car technology, undermining the Detroit-based automakers and the rest of the industry.

The self-driving legislation, approved by the House on Wednesday, traces a rare bipartisan consensus in President Donald Trump’s Washington that signals otherwise. It’s a big step forward for a suite of technology sure to transform the auto industry in ways not seen since Henry Ford’s moving assembly line helped put the world on wheels.

Automakers could run and test up to 100,000 vehicles each on American roads, under the bill that now heads to the Senate, and states would be barred from passing legislation to prevent such testing. The biggest innovation: over time, self-driving vehicles effectively would be exempt from federal standards requiring they be piloted by human drivers.

U.S. senators Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley and Gov. Rick Snyder and John Maddox, President and CEO of American Center for Mobility, break ground on the project in November 2016.

Revolutionary doesn’t begin to describe what is being contemplated by the legislation. The century-old auto industry that partly defines the industrialized West, as well as the aggressive ambitions of China, are preparing a shift into another phase of transportation that aims to replace living, breathing drivers with a welter of sensors powered by software and reams of Big Data.

Peters, a member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, is co-sponsoring legislation with Chairman John Thune, R-S.D., that would prioritize safety, encourage innovation and reduce regulatory roadblocks.

The bill would aim to be technology-neutral, ensuring that whatever federal self-driving rules Congress sends to the president do not favor specific technologies, industry sectors or companies. It also would clarify the different roles of federal and state regulators.

It’s “certainly encouraging to have movement in the House in a bipartisan way,” Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, told The Detroit News in an interview. “We’ll try to do the same in the Senate. This technology is coming, it’s moving very rapidly, and being first in developing it is very important for our economy. Time is not on our side.”

No, it’s not. And the push is global, with China’s largest-in-the-world market and its central-government bureaucrats wielding enough power to bend to its will automakers and the tech community epitomized by Silicon Valley.

Persuading federal lawmakers that autonomous vehicles are for real is one thing. Persuading consumers that those cars soon will be plying American streets and sitting in its showrooms is another. On that score, the auto industry has some work to do, according to a survey released Wednesday.

AlixPartners LLP, a consultant to the global auto industry with offices in Southfield, found that 29 percent of the 1,567 adults surveyed between July 27 and Aug. 2 would pay $2,600 more to buy an autonomous vehicle. But 49 percent said they are not confident enough in the technology to consider buying one, with 55 percent saying they are “unlikely” to buy one.

More sobering for the likes of General Motors Co. and Ford Motor Co., to cite two hometown examples: only 10 percent of the respondents trust automakers to develop the software to control self-driving vehicles, compared to 78 percent who would trust high-tech companies to develop similar software.

Just because the global auto industry possesses the technical acumen to develop, assemble and integrate technology into self-driving vehicles, would-be consumers are far less persuaded they have the software chops to field safe autonomous cars.

That’s a challenge for Detroit, especially, still trying to shed the stigma of bankruptcy and near-collapse. But it helps explain why GM, Ford and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV are scouring Silicon Valley and its satellite locations for technical expertise they can buy, leverage or both.

They have a technology deficit, probably more perceived than real; they’re facing an enormous threat to their traditional car and truck business, still the generator of principally all their revenue and profit; and they’re contending with a rapid pace of change skeptics believe their cultures are not necessarily built to handle.

Recognizing the speed of change is not the same as responding effectively to it. For the automotive capital of the world, the challenge is not just persuading would-be customers that self-driving cars are legitimate and at least a partial answer to future transportation.

It’s increasing their competitive metabolism enough to effectively compete with Silicon Valley rivals — or face a reckoning every bit as humbling, and potentially disastrous, as that visited here during the global financial meltdown.


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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.