Silicon Valley Dominating Self-Driving Tech? Motor City Says Not So Fast

Silicon Valley Dominating Self-Driving Tech? Motor City Says Not So Fast

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The latest step came this month when Gov. Rick Snyder signed a package of laws to permit more extensive testing of self-driving cars on public roads, while clearing the way for use of autonomous vehicles in trials by ride-hailing services.

“We are opening a new portal for autonomous technology,” Mr. Snyder said in an interview. “This helps reinforce the message that Michigan is a place of innovation.”

The passage of the Michigan’s new laws come as Uber battles with California authorities over the company’s test of self-driving cars in San Francisco. The state contends Uber has not obtained the necessary permits, although Uber has continued picking up passengers with its autonomous test cars.

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Nevada and Arizona are also vying to lure companies that are testing and developing self-driving cars. What’s at stake is a potential economic boost — the millions of dollars automakers and others are spending on research and engineering, and the high-paying jobs they are creating.

The city of Pittsburgh is also intent on competing with Detroit as a self-driving technopolis. Because of some pioneering research in self-driving technology at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh has emerged as a key development site.

Uber is using autonomous cars to provide rides in one section of the city, a project for which Bill Peduto, the mayor, said he was happy to “roll out the red carpet.” Delphi Automotive, a maker of automobile components, is also working on self-driving systems in Pittsburgh.

Even before Michigan passed its new laws, the state was gaining ground. Earlier this year Google’s self-driving car project, now called Waymo, partnered with Fiat Chrysler to develop a fleet of 100 self-driving minivans and opened a technical office in Novi, Mich., near Detroit.

The modified Pacifica vans, engineered in Michigan and assembled at Fiat Chrysler’s plant in Windsor, Ont., just across the river from Detroit, were delivered to Waymo on Monday. The two companies tested the first prototypes at Fiat Chrysler’s proving grounds near Ann Arbor.

The Canadian province of Ontario means to play its own big role in self-driving technology. Earlier this year, General Motors announced that it would create up to 1,000 engineering jobs, many focused on autonomous driving software development, in a suburb of Toronto. And this week Prime Minister Justin Trudeau officially opened BlackBerry’s self-driving research center in Ottawa. It is based around a company formerly known QNX Software Systems, which has a long history as a supplier to auto companies.

Back in Michigan, Ford is expanding its autonomous car efforts at its headquarters in Dearborn. It has built 30 self-driving cars and aims to have a fully automated car, with no steering wheel or pedals, in volume production by 2021. Ford intends for those cars to be first used in urban, ride-hailing fleets.

The University of Michigan has created a 32-acre center for testing self-driving vehicles in Ann Arbor. Called MCity, the 32-acre facility has streets, intersections, traffic lights and road signs that provide a realistic environment where companies can hone autonomous vehicles before putting them on public roads.

Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan signs legislation establishing regulations for the testing, use and eventual sale of autonomous vehicle technology in the state.

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Romain Blanquart/Detroit Free Press, via Associated Press

The university has also broken ground on a much larger, 335-acre site that was once the home of a World War II bomber factory.

Michigan’s new laws allow the testing of autonomous vehicles that have no steering wheel or gas and brake pedals. California prohibits testing of such cars on public roads. Michigan is also allowing more extensive testing of autonomous trucks traveling in groups or platoons.

“There’s the wrangling going on between the tech companies and the authorities in California over what is and what isn’t allowed,” said Karl Brauer, a senior editor at Kelley Blue Book, an automotive research firm. “Meanwhile, in Michigan, you get the sense that it’s ‘What can we do to help you?’”

General Motors, the nation’s biggest automaker, said last week that it planned to soon begin testing its autonomous vehicles on Michigan roads. The company added that it would also build its first self-driving Chevrolet Bolts — already available as an all-electric car for human drivers — at an assembly plant in the Detroit suburb of Orion Township. G.M. is not saying when self-driving cars will be available for sale, but that it expects the Bolt will initially be for ride-hailing services.

The addition of autonomous vehicles early next year may help secure the long-term future of the Orion Township plant, which makes the Chevrolet Sonic subcompact as well as the Bolt.

G.M.’s decision to centralize its production of self-driving models in Orion Township is a big step toward making Michigan a manufacturing hub for autonomous cars.

“We expect to be the first high-volume auto manufacturer to build fully autonomous vehicles in a mass-production assembly plant,” Mary Barra, G.M.’s chief executive, said at Friday’s announcement.

G.M. has already been testing autonomous Bolts at its technical center in Warren, Mich., as well as on public roads in San Francisco and Scottsdale, Ariz.

But Ms. Barra said Michigan’s new law would help make the state the center of its winter-weather tests. “Being here where we can get the cold, snow and all the different weather conditions,” she said, “is very important.”

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