Ann Arbor could become testing ground for network of driverless cars

By Chris McCahill

While driverless cars seem to be a technological reality thanks to innovative leaders at Google, questions still remain as to their implementation and practicality. Researchers at University of Michigan hope to answer these questions by launching a citywide network of shared driverless cars in Ann Arbor in less than eight years.

The proposed driverless car pilot program would be led by the university’s new Mobility Transformation Center, a partnership of U-M researchers, industry leaders, and government agencies. The program will build upon federally funded work currently underway at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute that includes a network of short-range wireless communication devices already being deployed around Ann Arbor. Researchers see the program as a way to greatly reduce crashes, energy use, and pollution, while revolutionizing urban transportation.

Michigan lawmakers have already begun paving the way for the program to become a reality by passing a recent Senate Bill that would allow autonomous vehicles on the state’s roads. Google has reportedly logged hundreds of thousands of miles in driverless cars already, and Michigan’s automakers are enthusiastic to see the technology hit more of America’s streets. Nonetheless, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration expressed concerns at a recent congressional hearing, saying it would be “premature” for automakers to start rolling the cars out. The Ann Arbor pilot could be an important step in implementing the technology, though some questions remain.

Assuming that a network of driverless vehicles will function similarly to a typical car-share program or taxi service, a city the size of Ann Arbor would need a fleet of at least 50 to 100 cars to be viable. This may be a realistic goal, given that the UMTRI Safety Pilot program has already outfitted close to 3,000 cars with vehicle-to-vehicle communications equipment, but it is still unclear how large a fleet would be needed to make a significant impact in terms of safety and energy use. Other remaining questions include what the legal and social implications of such a system will be and how driverless vehicles would compete with alternatives such as walking, biking, and public transit, which are all on the rise in urban areas.

Chris McCahill is a Senior Associate at SSTI.