Column: Michigan offers roadmap for innovation

Joe Rinzel

Driverless pizza delivery cars will soon be tested on Ann Arbor’s streets, marking another sign of how Michigan’s forward-thinking policies are sparking innovation that benefits the state’s consumers, businesses and economy. If policymakers elsewhere fail to learn from Michigan’s approach, their communities will lose out on much more than faster pizza delivery — they will be left behind in a rapidly transforming economy.

It is no coincidence that Ford and Domino’s, which are partnering on the driverless pizza delivery effort, chose the university town as a testing ground. Michigan policymakers have signaled to businesses — especially those in the tech sector — that the state is prepared for the economy of the future. Last year, for instance, legislators passed a series of laws paving the way for driverless cars, including laws that make it easier to conduct road testing and clarify rules surrounding the sale of autonomous vehicles.

Policymakers are also taking critical steps to ensure community safety as driverless cars hit state roads by establishing the Michigan Council on Future Mobility, which will regulate autonomous car networks and share extensive traffic data to guarantee pedestrians and motorists remain safe.

As a result, Michigan is a hub for innovation. In 2015, legislators, business leaders and academic researchers partnered to create Mcity, a $10 million, 32-acre mock city on the University of Michigan’s campus in Ann Arbor. A pilot program is underway, designed to develop connected-car technologies that will ease congestion and ensure the safety of self-driving cars.

Ford is not alone in recognizing Michigan’s potential, as Toyota, BMW, Intel and other major companies are investing in research and development facilities in the state. In fact, Michigan is now home to one of the country’s highest concentrations of workers in science, technology, engineering and math. And just a few years after it was on the brink, the state’s economy now ranks among the nation’s 10 best.

Other policymakers across the country are similarly embracing the need for policies that foster innovation in their communities. In Arizona, Gov. Doug Ducey recently signed an executive order to safeguard the autonomous technology industry — which, beyond driverless cars, includes drones and various other types of robotic devices — from overregulation that threatens to stifle innovation. In Pittsburgh, city officials are working with Uber to test the first fleet of self-driving cars in a major American city; as Mayor Bill Peduto said in partnering with Uber, “You can either put up red tape or roll out the red carpet.”

This approach should be a model for policymakers on all levels, particularly as many struggle with how to incorporate innovation and technology into their communities and economies. This includes major cities such as Chicago and San Francisco, where some leaders have proposed completely banning innovations such as driverless cars and delivery drones.

Despite their best intentions and concerns about safety, policymakers who stand on the sidelines — or worse, seek to block innovation altogether — are ultimately failing to serve their communities, which will fall behind in providing better services to customers, opening the door to new work opportunities and attracting businesses that can help boost local economies. While it is essential to address concerns around safety and the disruption of traditional business models, banning innovation is not the answer.

Instead, all policymakers would be wise to start embracing the technology and innovation that will be central to the modern digital economy of tomorrow. These new technologies are already transforming the way Americans work, shop, eat and live, and the demand is only growing. Given the dizzying pace of innovation, the 21st Century economy will reward those who buy in early, and policymakers like those in Michigan are providing a roadmap for how to do it.

Joe Rinzel is a spokesman for Americans for a Modern Economy, a consumer advocacy group focused on modernizing antiquated regulations and laws governing the U.S. economy.