Lieutenant Governor tours Mcity, talks future of autonomous vehicles

Wednesday, February 20, 2019 - 4:25pm

Lieutenant Governor Garlin Gilchrist meets with MCity to discuss self-driving car research and its use on North Campus Wednesday.

Lieutenant Governor Garlin Gilchrist meets with MCity to discuss self-driving car research and its use on North Campus Wednesday. Buy this photo
Asha Lewis/Daily

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II toured the University of Michigan’s driverless car test and research site, Mcity, Wednesday afternoon. The visit was part of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s “Home for Opportunity” tour, a series of 50 events intended to highlight avenues for technological innovation, infrastructural development and economic opportunity in the state of Michigan.

Mcity Deputy Director Carrie Morton started the event with a presentation on Mcity’s research and partnerships as well as the future of autonomous vehicles. She noted Mcity is currently focusing on small-scale, local deployments of autonomous vehicles, such as the driverless shuttles in Detroit.

“We’re going to see this increasing level for deployment, where they can drive themselves in a very small area, similar to the May Mobility shuttles in Detroit,” Morton said. “We’ll see these in small deployments, but make no mistake, at this stage, all of those are pretty highly curated science projects and they’re not ready to scale and they won’t be for some time.”

According to their website, Mcity is collaborating with the University’s Transportation Institute to launch an on-demand, autonomous transportation system in Ann Arbor by 2021.

Morton said Mcity’s next step would be working on individual, completely self-sufficient cars, an achievement she does not expect to see during her career due to the various hurdles in autonomous vehicle research. Citing a report by the Rand Corporation, Morton noted extensive work is still needed to prove autonomous vehicles are at least as safe as human-operated cars.

“Forty-thousand people lose their lives in traffic accidents every year, that equates to roughly one fatality per 100,000,000 miles driven,” Morton said. “That means you’d have to travel, the Rand Report says, anywhere between 9 to 11 billion miles to prove these are safe, or safer than a human, statistically.”

In addition, Morton said, Mcity must consider regulations surrounding autonomous vehicles. She said lawmakers have difficulty keeping up with the pace of innovation.

“Michigan is doing a great job moving to be at the fore of trying to understand how to safely deploy these on the roadways, but what will really unlock, I think, the potential of this technology is a national framework, which is what folks like Mcity and others are helping to try to inform,” Morton said.

Rebecca DeVooght, the University’s state relations director,agreed, adding the general public has expressed concern about autonomous vehicles, including the University’s shuttles — which are electric, 11-seat vehicles produced by a French company called NAVYA — being used to inflict harm.

“The very first question, once we were in a NAVYA ride, was, ‘How can these be used for nefarious purposes?’” DeVooght said.

Morton expressed concern that the large-scale deployment of autonomous vehicles could disrupt business in Southeast Michigan. Gilchrist noted, however, the autonomous vehicle industry presents opportunities for new technical jobs.

“I really think that in terms of different ancillary opportunities, from a job creation and training perspective,” Gilchrist said. “A hardware and technician market needs to happen, and servicing and things, so you get to see that, that’s part of the whole ecosystem.”

Despite the challenges in autonomous vehicle research, Morton praised Mcity’s work, saying it has brought recognition to the state of Michigan and contributed to the development of a technology that could provide physical and economic mobility.

“It’s exciting to think that Michigan can be at the core of what the future looks like and all the opportunities this could bring,” Morton said. “It has given Michigan a brand that other states, other regions envy.”

Morton listed some of Mcity’s major focus areas, including user trust, market adoption, legal issues, privacy and security, as well as autonomous vehicle testing. She also said Mcity places a strong emphasis on federal and state outreach alongside  education.

Through a partnership with the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, Mcity has created an incubator called TechLab which partners startups interested in autonomous vehicles with undergraduates at the University. According to Morton, TechLab works with about four companies a year.

Another example of Mcity’s outreach, Morton said, is a Teach-Out on self-driving cars currently being hosted by the Office of Academic Innovation in partnership with MCity. Overall, Morton said working through the University presents Mcity with opportunities to share its work with faculty, students and industry members.

“The great thing about being at an institution like U-M, as you know, is a byproduct of our research is education,” Morton said. “When the talent pipeline is under such restriction, we’re looking for every way possible to leverage our platform here to educate the next generation in this space, really the first generation actually.”

Gilchrist concluded his visit by heading to the Mcity track, though The Daily was asked not to join. He followed his tour of Mcity with a visit to Washtenaw Community College, which is also conducting research on autonomous vehicle technology.