Are Michigan roads ready for self-driving cars?

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By Gloria Nzeka
Capital News Service
LANSING – If you drive or travel on Michigan roads, you know that they’re not in the best of shape. As discussions about automated vehicles increasingly appear in the news, cars and tech enthusiasts may be wondering: If we can’t build roads without potholes, how do we build them for automated cars?
Or: Are Michigan roads ready to accommodate self-driving cars?
“On one level, yes, the roads are ready because those vehicles will have to work on the roads that we have,” said Richard Wallace, director of the Transportation Systems Analysis group within the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor.
“The driver has to be capable,” Wallace said, referring to the computer system that will pilot automated cars through artificial intelligence, or AI. “That’s why you have driving tests, and we will need some sort of equivalence for AI systems.”
In 2013, Michigan became the fourth U.S. state to regulate the testing of automated vehicles. The legislation was updated in 2016 and manufacturers and suppliers of automated vehicle technology could now test pilot automated cars on public roads. Since then, GM and Google’s automated cars unit – Waymo – have been testing some of their automated vehicles in Michigan.
“A highly automated vehicle can travel across the country, and it uses its sensors to detect pavement markings, signs, physical objects along the road and compares it to its [high-definition] map for comparison to assure itself of its location,” said Kirk Steudle, director of the Department of Transportation.
Steudle said automated vehicles can drive on Michigan’s roads as they are today. However, he said, new technologies should be added to new infrastructure projects.
Wallace said infrastructure needs to adapt to the way automated cars will navigate, because our current signage and lane markings have all been built on the premise of human drivers.
“The way to tell an automated vehicle that the speed limit is 65 is probably not a big white sign with black letters that says 65 on it, that’s not optimal for computer understanding,” Wallace said.
To help meet new automation needs, “public agencies can initially focus on pavement marking quality and technology upgrades to traffic signals when they are being replaced to allow for future adaption,” Steudle said.
Wallace suggested that one way to communicate with automated vehicles on the road will be to put a readable code on the side of the road, or a digital signature emitting a pulse that can be read wirelessly, telling an automated car that 65 is the speed limit.
“At some point, five or 10 years from now, while we have both human and computer driving vehicles, we will need both the sign that says 65 and the digital signature that says 65 to the computer,” Wallace said.
In addition to making roads ready for automated vehicles, Wallace said we need to be sure automated vehicles are ready to be on the road. Wallace said the technology has a ways to go.
“I don’t think we are completely ready to have empty vehicles out there. We’re still testing them with humans to see whether they’re ready and unfortunately that’s not perfect either,” Wallace said. “I don’t think it’s going to happen tomorrow but it might happen in one year.”
Wallace also said our regulations, law and liability regime are not ready either. Referring to a recent accident in Arizona, where an Uber automated vehicle crushed a pedestrian, he said:
“We don’t really know who’s going to get the liability here. Is it Uber, the driver that was behind the wheel but didn’t react? Some people are saying it’s the woman’s fault, did she jaywalk? I think our legal frameworks are going to have to change.”
How soon automated cars show up on our roads will largely depend on lawmakers. The federal government is working on a certification of Artificial Intelligence systems for driving vehicles, but Wallace said progress is slow.
One of the things that proponents of automated vehicles champion is safety. Steudle said in order to achieve those safety and congestion benefits, the vehicles will need to communicate better with each other and the infrastructure.

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