Weekly Brief: Michigan’s AV-Only Highway is the Right Direction

The state of Michigan plans to build a self-driving car corridor from Detroit to Ann Arbor.

Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer held a press conference last week to lay out the state’s vision for a 40-mile stretch of retrofitted road along Michigan Avenue and Interstate 94. The road will be walled off from traditional traffic and dedicated exclusively to autonomous vehicles, be they busses, cars, vans or trucks. Michigan is working on the project with Cavnue, a subsidiary of Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners.

A host of automotive and autonomous mobility companies will serve on an advisory committee for the project. The committee will include Ford, General Motors, Argo AI, Arrival, BMW, Honda, Toyota, TuSimple and Waymo. The goal will be to create a neutral infrastructure, complete with cameras, sensors and infrastructure-to-vehicle communication, that benefits everyone equally, rather than one AV provider in particular.

Phase One will be devoted to testing the overall viability of the project and coming up with a specific road design. Subsequent construction and implementation will be part of future phases of the project, to be determined following the initial 24-month period. So don’t hold your breath.

Still, the corridor is positive news for the AV industry. It’s easy to float ideas in the hypothetical. Forcing a bunch of stakeholders to come together and actually implement a functional and mutually beneficial piece of infrastructure is more difficult and, thus, more significant. The result could serve as a model for other states and countries around the world, which in turn could serve as a catalyst for the AV revolution as a whole.

The biggest challenge for taking self-driving cars mainstream isn’t getting cars and trucks to drive themselves from point A to point B. From a technological standpoint, engineers have largely figured that out at this point. Tesla CEO Elon Musk has stated that his company is ready to have full self-driving capabilities active in its cars by the end of 2020. Waymo has hundreds of self-driving cars on the road, some with paying customers inside, and has just partnered with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles to integrate its Waymo Driver technology across FCA’s lineup, from commercial vans to ride-hailing vehicles to consumer cars. Last week our Paul Myles detailed Hyundai’s latest partnership with Aptiv to create a Level 4 autonomous vehicle for the consumer segment.

The challenge today is not the technology, therefore, it’s figuring out how to ensure that these self-driving vehicles can safely cohabitate with human drivers. Drivers who speed and swerve, fall asleep, drink, text, ignore road rules and engage in various acts of road rage during the act of driving. In time autonomous technology will get to the point where it can respond to unpredictable human behavior within an acceptable margin of error but. creating self-driving-car-only lanes. could expedite deployment.

In the same way that adding EV charging infrastructure has taken a decade to bring to scale, so too will it take time to ramp up AV-exclusive infrastructure. That’s where the Michigan project could prove most useful. Governor Whitmer wants to create a test lab where companies and local, state and federal government can figure out what’s most viable and easily implemented. It also wants to investigate how to “future-proof” infrastructure so that an AV corridor isn’t outdated a couple years after it’s built. That’s a worthwhile endeavor, even if it takes years to come to fruition.

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