Michigan Senate panel OKs autonomous vehicle research bills

SAGINAW — A Michigan Senate panel Wednesday approved four bills aimed at accelerating autonomous vehicle projects in Michigan.

The legislative package now moves to the full state Senate. It approves testing of the new technology on 122 miles of roads in the state and opens the way for the American Center for Mobility to redevelop the old Willow Run airport for autonomous vehicle testing and research.

“The law that we drafted in 2013 was just to allow testing,” said Sen. Mike Kowall, R-White Lake, one of the bills’ sponsors. “This opens everything — as long as you have everything working and you pass all the standards that we set forward.”

Besides Michigan, other states including Florida, Nevada, Arizona and California are hustling to position themselves as hubs for the research and development of self-driving vehicles. Uber and Carnegie Mellon University have made Pittsburgh another key venue for autonomous mobility.

Much of the work is being done by automakers, ride-sharing and technology companies such as Google, Uber, Lyft and Apple.

A year ago, Mcity, a 32-acre simulated city and test facility, opened on the University of Michigan’s North Campus, where  automakers, suppliers and telecommunications companies are testing autonomous vehicle systems in a controlled environment.

Toyota, along with General Motors, Ford, Nissan and Honda, is a founding partner in U-M’s Mobility Transformation Center, which oversees Mcity.

Ford CEO Mark Fields said two weeks ago it will have a fleet of completely autonomous taxis operating in an unnamed city by 2021.

The next day, ride-sharing service Uber said it would offer a fleet of self-driving cars on selected routes in Pittsburgh within weeks. Separately, Uber and Volvo are investing $300 million to develop a fully autonomous Volvo by 2021.

In July, the Michigan Economic Development Corp. approved the $1.2-million purchase of 311 acres in Ypsilanti for the American Center for Mobility on the site of the former World War II Willow Run bomber plant. The center will be used to test vehicles that can talk to each other and drive on their own.

In August, the Toyota Research Institute announced a grant of $22 million to advance research on artificial intelligence, robotics and autonomous driving at the University of Michigan. The money will be spent over four years, and the work will be directed by robotics professors Ryan Eustice and Ed Olson, who will retain their part-time faculty positions.

Kirk Steudle, chairman of the Michigan Department of Transportation, said the committee’s action Wednesday needs to be followed up by votes of the full Senate and the House of Representatives.

“This needs to be done this year,” Steudle said. “The governor said he wants this bill passed so we can get it signed and give certainty to the auto industry. It is moving so fast, even from when the legislation was introduced.”

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Posted by Tribune News Services

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