By MICHAEL GERSTEIN
Capital News Service
LANSING – This isn’t the remote controlled car you played with as a kid.
Companies across the state are in the process of unveiling cars that drive themselves, while a bill that would allow testing driverless vehicles revs through the Legislature.
If passed, it would open the roads to companies like Google and General Motors – and smaller Michigan-based firms – to try their shiny new toys on the road.
Sen. Mike Kowall, R-White Lake, is sponsoring the bill, which is in the Transportation Committee. Cosponsors include Sens. Geoff Hansen, R-Hart; Judy Emmons, R-Sheridan; Morris Hood, D-Detroit; Steven Bieda, D-Warren; and Arlan Meekhof, R-Olive Township.
“My measure would help ensure that research and development expenditures and taxes related to automated vehicles stay in Michigan,” Kowall said.
He cited data from the Michigan Economic Development Corp. that shows more than 330 companies in the state are involved in automotive research and development.
And Kowall has powerful support.
Gov. Rick Snyder mentioned the need to authorize companies to test their automated vehicles in his State of the State address, calling for Michigan to join the ranks of others that already allow it.
“California, Florida and Nevada have already passed legislation on autonomous vehicles,” he said. “They’re ahead of us, and aren’t we the automotive capital of the world?”
The Secretary of State office (SOS) and Department of Transportation (MDOT) would need to verify whether companies looking to test these vehicles are legitimate.
Matt Smith, the intelligent transportation system program manager for MDOT, said the idea is to make sure only those that are actually testing vehicles get the opportunity to sit in them. They would be designated by an “M” on the license plate, and drivers would still need to be in the vehicles.
A number of smaller Michigan companies are looking into developing and testing automated cars, including ones doing work for the Department of Defense, Smith said.
“The technology shows a huge amount of promise. If we could help mitigate the human factor in crashes, that’s huge.”
Smith said accidents would still be the operators’ responsibility, as the cars would still need to be operated manually to some extent, or if the system goes haywire.
Systems vary based on company design. They usually use a small device that sits on top of the dash that uses a combination of laser detection and computer imaging software to interpret the world, identifying when to stop for a pedestrian and when to turn around sharp corners.
“Imagine what you see,” said Phil Callihan, director of the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences in Ann Arbor.
“From years of living and growing up and identifying things, you can see things, and you see in three dimensions, and you understand what a stop sign is, and you understand when a car cuts in front of you.
“On the computers’ side, you have to have all these sensors to basically translate what’s out in the physical world to create a virtual model inside the computer. The challenges are having sensors to actually identify the important things out in the physical world and then having the artificial intelligence – the computer programming – on the inside, to know how to deal with those things,” Callihan said.
One challenge is getting the computers to recognize their surroundings when covered in snow. That’s something he says companies are working on.
And supporters of the bill say they hope that work on driverless cars will take place in the state, saying it might help keep Michigan on the map for automobile production.
But it’s unclear how differing state laws could affect travel.
The federal government has yet to enact any measures concerning the safety of the technology, or regulations that might be needed when a driverless car is in the hands of a vacationing family instead of a researcher.
States like Colorado already prohibit automated cars, so forget about driving to see the Rocky Mountains while playing chess with your own version of HAL 9000.
And it might be tricky to get to California if other states along the route adopt similar laws.
Online resources for CNS editors
Senate Bill 169 http://www.legislature.mi.gov/documents/2013-2014/billintroduced/Senate/pdf/2013-SIB-0169.pdf
By MICHAEL GERSTEIN