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What's Holding Driverless Cars Back? It's Not Tech. It's People, Says Michigan Governor

The roll-out of autonomous vehicles will be gradual, Gov. Rick Snyder said recently. But that doesn’t mean states should wait to address some of the technology’s potential downsides.

driverless mercedes
Don't expect to see this on the open road anytime soon.
(AP/Jae C. Hong)
Driverless vehicle technology is advancing quickly, but don’t expect it to suddenly change everything about getting around in cars. The introduction of autonomous vehicles will happen much more gradually, says Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder.

Snyder is a former tech CEO and venture capitalist who is now closing out his second term as governor in a state synonymous with the auto industry. He predicts that the first public uses for autonomous vehicles will be for relatively straightforward tasks, like commercial deliveries or parking shuttles on university campuses.

Those kinds of situations are not only simpler for machines to handle than navigating rush-hour traffic in a crowded city, they’re also more straightforward for a bunch of policy-related reasons. The isolated environments, for example, could make it easier to insure the vehicles and to specify what, if any, liability the auto manufacturers would bear for crashes, Snyder said at a recent event at the Washington Auto Show.

But perhaps the biggest reason for the slow rollout, he said, is that the public will need to embrace the new technologies first.

“The technology is evolving very quickly. I don’t view technology as the constraint here. This gets back to real people, and how fast this is accepted,” Snyder said.

To bring people on board, automakers and public officials will have to show them the benefits of self-driving and connected vehicles, even if they don’t ride in one. Most motorists will still drive themselves, after all.

"What happens to the average driver that’s not connected, which is going to be the vast majority of people? They’re going to go, ‘What do I care? This person’s showing off, and what benefit do I get?’” Snyder said.  

The answer, the governor said, is that high-tech cars that can both drive themselves and interact with other cars and infrastructure could help improve traffic warnings and other apps.

“If we can show the tangible value to real drivers, even if they’re not connected, that will dramatically accelerate the acceptance of this technology,” he said.

Snyder’s remarks were part of a mini roadshow the outgoing governor embarked on to highlight Michigan’s advancements with autonomous vehicles. He appeared earlier at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where he met with leaders of tech companies. Snyder also appeared with governors Brian Sandoval of Nevada and Steve Bullock of Montana in Las Vegas to discuss states’ roles in promoting technology adoption.

The out-of-state visits gave Snyder a chance to burnish his reputation, which has been tarnished by his state’s role in creating the Flint water crisis, and to escape the still-unfolding scandals surrounding the sexual assaults of more than 200 child gymnasts by a doctor who worked for Michigan State University’s athletic department.

The advancement of driverless vehicle technology and policy in Michigan under Snyder’s watch has been a bright spot for the governor.

Despite being the home of Ford, General Motors and Chrysler, Michigan’s laws governing driverless vehicle testing, sales and deployment were viewed not too long ago as behind-the-times, because they only let auto manufacturers test the new technology. But Snyder signed a new batch of laws in late 2016 that opened Michigan’s roads for testing, even for autonomous vehicles that had no steering wheels.

The University of Michigan opened a 32-acre testing ground for autonomous and connected vehicles in 2015 that auto and tech companies can use to develop new products. But late last year, the state of Michigan opened a new, much larger testing ground for autonomous vehicles at an old Ford bomber factory site in Ypsilanti. The 500-acre facility is run by the American Center for Mobility, a public-private venture with companies and universities. It features a test track with 2.5 miles of highway, including tunnels and overpasses.

In Washington, Snyder said the development of autonomous vehicle technology was different than a lot of other technology improvements he’s seen, because it requires more cooperation all around.

“This is a field where there are more partnerships happening, and faster and better, than in any other area I’ve ever been involved with,” he said. “It’s not about how well your vehicle performs on its own. It’s how well it plays in the big sandbox with everyone else.

“Traditionally, the auto companies did things on their own. They didn’t deal with startup companies much. I don’t know of an auto manufacturer that isn’t out talking to every startup they can find. That’s huge,” he added.

But the same is true on the government side as well, Snyder said. Rolling out the new technology will take work at all levels of government: the federal government regulates design of vehicles, states set traffic laws and build highways, and local governments install connected streetlights and other infrastructure to make the new vehicles work better.

“Our operating model, what I ask all of our people to do is to be the best partner. We’re the world’s leader in mobility in Michigan. I can have that discussion with anyone. But our goal isn’t to have it be us vs anyone, it’s: how can we be the best partner partnering with everyone?” Snyder said.

The governor, who constantly touts his focus on “relentless positive action,” also takes an optimistic view of automakers when it comes to regulation.

“We think we’re working with responsible parties,” he said. “The last thing [manufacturers] want to have happen is have anyone get hurt. The degree of care that we’re seeing from these organizations out there doing good work is very impressive. … If they fail to do that, then people will step in. But if they’re doing it in a very responsible fashion, why wouldn’t we try to be a supportive partner?”

But even Snyder warned about the potential “societal challenges” that would come with automated driving. Those include cybersecurity, privacy, insurance regulations and changes to law enforcement.

But his biggest worry, he said, are the jobs that might be eliminated as a result of the new technology.

“We need to be responsible and start that discussion not with a panic but in a thoughtful fashion about how we do training” for new careers, he said. “How do we do this and not wait until it becomes a crisis where these people are not left in a terrible situation? This is something that we traditionally in this country are not good at that. We typically wait for the crisis. Let’s be smarter this time.”

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