New Proposed Laws, Collaborations Pave Way for Driverless Future

This has been a banner week for Michigan-centric news pertaining to the development of driverless vehicles.

On Wednesday, Google announced in a Google+ post that, after placing a team of employees in the metro Detroit area for “the past few years,” it would open a facility in suburban Novi, MI, to develop self-driving car technology.

The 53,000-square-foot facility will allow Google to “collaborate more easily and access Michigan’s top talent in vehicle development and engineering. … Our engineers, working with local partners, will further develop and refine self-driving technology,” the post explained.

The first project Google is working on is the self-driving Chrysler Pacifica hybrid minivan. Earlier this month, Google and Fiat Chrysler announced they were partnering on the development of a fleet of 100 self-driving minivans, and although some reports have characterized the new facility in Novi to be a result of that partnership, the Google+ post seems to indicate the tech giant plans a more agnostic approach. And while some of the more wild-eyed idealists in Silicon Valley were hoping Google would be able to crack autonomous vehicle technology without heavy involvement from an old-school legacy industry like automotive, the announcement seems to confirm that the company does, in fact, need significant participation from car manufacturers to get its vehicles to market.

Adding to the Google announcement was one today from Michigan’s Legislature that shows a surprising amount of foresight for a governing body that has spent most of the year arguing over how to put out the fires caused by crisis after crisis: State Sen. Mike Kowall (R-White Lake Township) introduced bills that would pave the way for Michigan to lead the development of self-driving cars.

The legislation would allow self-driving cars on any of Michigan’s 122,000 miles of roads—no human driver required. It would also permit the operation of automakers’ on-demand, self-driving fleets, like the Chevy Bolts GM and Lyft are currently building.

“It’s an entire mobility program encouraging anybody and everybody that’s interested in autonomous vehicles to come to Michigan and do their research and development, and put it to practical uses,” Kowall told the Detroit News.

Although Kowall represents the district that includes Novi, he told the News that Google’s announcement took him by surprise because the company had “played their cards pretty close to their vest.” Current Michigan law calls for a human driver to be present in autonomous vehicles, and only seven states have thus far passed any legislation at all concerning the testing of driverless cars. Governor Rick Snyder reportedly supports the bills, and Michigan Department of Transportation director Kirk Steudle called Michigan’s proposed legislation the most far-reaching yet and something that could serve as a national model.

There’s another reason for fast-tracking the testing of driverless cars on Michigan roads: People need to see the vehicles functioning without incident before they can trust the technology, according to a research report released this week by the University of Michigan.

Brandon Schoettle and Michael Sivak of U-M’s Transportation Research Institute analyzed motorists’ opinions about vehicle automation, including their overall concerns about riding in driverless cars.

The research found that roughly 46 percent of drivers want to keep full control while driving, while nearly 39 percent would be OK with a partially self-driving vehicle as long as occasional interventions by a human driver were possible. Just under 16 percent would rather ride in a completely self-driving vehicle than a traditional car. A whopping two-thirds of the 618 survey respondents said they’re moderately or very concerned about going completely autonomous, and half of the respondents had similar concerns about partially self-driving cars. The findings seem to indicate that a fair amount of consumer education will be necessary before putting self-driving vehicles on the market.

But before Michigan or any other place can win the race to get autonomous vehicles on the road, fundamental interoperability, machine learning, safety, and security challenges must be solved, and the Linux Foundation believes its open, collaborative platform is the best way to do it.

Dan Cauchy, general manager for automotive at the Linux Foundation, is heading up Automotive Grade Linux, a project to develop a common, Linux-based software stack for the connected car. The goal, Cauchy said, is to create a single, common platform for the entire automotive industry.

“It provides a common framework for software developers,” Cauchy said. “We have a code-first focus, which is different from other collaborative efforts like GENIVI.”

The GENIVI Alliance is, like AGL, a non-profit organization devoted to driving the broad adoption of an open-source, in-vehicle development platform. The key difference between the two efforts, Cauchy said, is GENIVI’s “bring your own platform” approach, where members must be compliant with common specs but can have individual operating systems. Cauchy, however, said having everyone on the same platform enables better security and allows developers to share fixes to bugs.

Cauchy said he used to serve on GENIVI’s board and has total respect for its efforts, but he believes AGL’s approach is the better one. Consumers, he noted, have come to expect a short production cycle and perpetual innovation thanks to smartphones.

“It took a while, but auto manufacturers now realize they’re in the software business,” he said. “During the typical automotive production cycle, three versions of the iPhone will have come out. We’ve got to change that and have one platform, not a contract where you give a spec to a supplier and say, ‘Build this.’ It’s about rapid innovation and getting up to the speed and functionality of a smartphone.”

Executives who are concerned they’ll lose their competitive advantage due to collaboration with AGL are probably too far behind the eight ball already, he added. “Some companies have their own platform and are maybe worried they won’t be able to sell it anymore. But we want to be the end system; the manufacturers still have to add their branding so the system looks and feels like theirs, but underneath it’s a common software platform.”

Cauchy compares the situation to the way Android architecture runs on most non-iPhone smartphones, unbeknownst to the majority of consumers. He said that with AGL, a vehicle would be 80 percent common software and 20 percent manufacturer-customized software.

AGL so far has 40 members, including many suppliers and software companies, as well as eight automakers, including Ford, Mazda, Toyota, Honda, and Jaguar Land Rover . Just this week, Movimento, Oracle, Qualcomm Innovation Center, Texas Instruments, UIEvolution, and VeriSilicon announced they officially joined the AGL project.

Cauchy said a preliminary version of the AGL Unified Code Base was released in January, with the next version due in July and a “quite complete” third version expected to be unveiled at next year’s CES in Las Vegas. The platform includes full navigation, HVAC controls, a media player, and a security framework.

As AGL works to get more automakers and tech companies on board, it holds all-member meetings twice a year. It recently held one in Japan, and Cauchy said 155 people from 39 companies attended, which he saw as a good sign.

“There might be holdouts, but once they see the platform’s success, I think they’ll come around,” he said.

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