California has long been a breeding ground for innovation and has fostered pioneering tech companies ranging from Disney to Apple. But in terms of self-driving cars—and based on several recent developments—a much more conservative Michigan is taking the pole position in nurturing the technology.
Michigan and particularly the Detroit area is an ideal incubator for autonomous technology since it’s the center of the automotive universe and can capitalize on its ample homegrown talent and resources, including world-class vehicle manufacturing capability and research prowess. The state also has a wide range of weather conditions to better test self-driving vehicles in real-world conditions.
And it has a state government that’s friendly to the technology. A recent example of this is wide-ranging legislation signed into law last week by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder that allows autonomous vehicles to operate on state roads—without a human behind the wheel or even onboard.
It also permits platoons of semi-automated trucks to travel together at set speeds and self-driving ride-sharing services to pick up passengers. “This is a huge step for our state, because it will allow accurate and proper testing of autonomous vehicles on real roads in real situations…aimed at providing greater opportunities to test, manufacture and operate autonomous vehicles in [Michigan],” Snyder said in a blog post earlier this week.
Contrast this with California’s more restrictive approach. Last December, the state’s DMV released draft legislation that, among other things, requires that a driver must be ready to take the wheel of an autonomous vehicle at all times, and that a vehicle has to have a steering wheel and pedals.
This last point didn’t sit well with Google, the most high-profile California company testing autonomous cars, since its self-driving pods are designed without those traditional controls. “We’re gravely disappointed that California is already writing a ceiling on the potential for fully self-driving cars to help all of us who live here,” a Google spokesman said at the time.
California ‘Misses the Point’
Following release of the draft legislation, several technology and automotive trade groups sent a letter to the California State Transportation Agency that said requiring a driver behind the wheel “misses the point” of the technology. The stringent rules “miss a critical opportunity to increase safety and reduce accidents,” they said.
At the end of September, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill that allows autonomous vehicles on public roads without a backup human driver or a steering wheel and pedals. But it only applies to a pilot project by at an autonomous-vehicle facility in Northern California testing and at a nearby business park, and speeds are limited to less than 35 mph.
Google reportedly told the California DMV late last year that if the rules weren’t loosened, the company’s self-driving car would not be made available in California, and Google has moved some of its testing to Texas and Washington state. Google also opened a large facility in the Detroit area earlier this year.
But evidence also came this week of why California could be wise to take a more cautious approach to autonomous vehicle legislation. Openly defying California’s permitting process for autonomous vehicles, Uber began testing self-driving Volvos in San Francisco, and one was caught on camera running a red light.
As companies race to take the lead in autonomous vehicles, expect to see more companies developing self-driving cars to flock to Michigan. Let’s just hope we don’t see self-driving big rigs running red lights as a result.