Detroit leads the way in autonomous cars; are we ready?

Detroit is the Motor City for a reason - Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler - but the future of automobiles may be autonomous vehicles. History is repeating itself as Detroit and Michigan is leading the way in testing and development.

Nearly all major automakers think it's not 'if', but 'when' self-driving cars become a reality and they all want to be first with self-driving cars. Huei Peng, Director of Mobility Transformation at M-City in Ann Arbor, said that taking control of the car away from the driver will make life more enjoyable.

"When we solve the autonomous problem we will all be released from the duty of driving and free to go back to do some of the more beautiful things in life," Peng said.

The technology is almost here but the real driving force of the automotive revolution is the person behind the wheel - you.

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Michigan isn't idling on this issue.Governor Rick Snyder has signed laws that allow autonomous testing in the state. Driverless cars aren't just a goal for GM, Ford, or Chrysler, tech companies like Google and Verizon see the potential and want in on the next frontier. They're helping to break down barriers.

Autonomous cars are already driving around one Michigan city. It's call M-City and has been up and running for a few years.

"This project has been running for about 3 years and we've collected about 6 million miles of driving," Peng said.

M-City is on campus at the University of Michigan and is built to foster innovation in the field of autonomous technology. Over the past three years, $30 million in total investment is being utilized by 65 automotive companies all working together to make self-driving a reality. Typically auto leaders drive fast trying to leave the competition behind, but that's not what's happening here.

"We are not wanting to enter the competitive business," Peng said.

There are 2,800 self-driving vehicles at their disposal and miles of changing landscape to tackle the concerns over legal liability, cyber security, and safety. Nearly every scenario can be simulated in this environment.

"This is literally a living lab that we are testing the technology since 5 years ago," Peng said.

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The big question is if the you are ready to trust autonomous vehicles. Peng says that it's a good thing that people are skeptical because it helps them make sure that technology will truly benefit everyone.

"It's very healthy that the general public is skeptical and that will make sure the technology is used in a way that will really benefit the public," he said.

It goes beyond that. Public perception is worth studying, according to public affairs specialist Gary Bubar.

"What we found is that people were afraid to be in autonomous vehicles. There is a vast mistrust of technology," Bubar said.  "Everyone wants these things on their cars but not everyone is ready to trust these things on their cars."

A recent survey by the auto club and insurance giant Triple A shows a majority of drivers don't have confidence in a self driving car.

"With autonomous vehicles liability is  a huge issue. Who is going to be liable in a crash. If there is no driver is it the owner, passenger, the software developer [who is responsible]?" Bubar said.


Transition innovation is necessary in every industry but the confidence from the consumer is vital for it to survive. Building that trust is something the auto industry has already done 100 years ago. When the automobile was first conceived, it was almost a novelty instead of a necessity.

"The car goes from being a novelty in the early 1890's to something to be taken very seriously by 1895," Transportation Historian Matt Anderson said.

It took another 20 years for cars to outpace horse and buggies.

"It wasn't until 1913, 1914 when automobiles finally outsold horse drawn carriages in the U.S. Some of that is price and some of that is our infrastructure had to change - which is an argument you are hearing with autonomous vehicles," Anderson said.

The public wasn't chomping at the bit to ditch the horse-drawn carriage so carmakers had to get creative.

"If you look at some of the  advertisements of the time there was a lot done to show people that automobiles were far more efficient than the horse," Anderson said. "Oldsmobile had a slogan, buy one of our cars and the only thing you will have to watch is the road. In other words, you don't have to watch for the horses temper or any problems it might cause."

They had to convince everyone they needed the technology and they started by targeting the cost. They advertised that it was cheaper to care for a car because you don't have to feed and shelter it like you would a horse. Then they had to show the public the new mode of transportation in action. In other words: start your engines.

"Early auto races were an effective demonstration when the cars were being introduced. A lot of people could see them and see how reliable they were and started taking them seriously. Those types of things are going to be important today too," he said.

It took time, energy, and money but they were able to slowly chip away at the doubters and create the foundation for the automobile industry that's since been proven too big to fail.

Can they do it again? It comes back to faith.

"I think that is one problem the autonomous cars are will subconsciously to give leeway to a human driver we understand accidents will happen. The computer just has to mess up once for us to lose faith in computers all together," Anderson said.