Michigan looking to drive automated revolution in auto industry

WILLOW RUN, Mich. (WXYZ) - For months now, Ford CEO Mark Fields has been saying the automaker must also become a mobility company.

The experts agree and the state of Michigan wants to play a leading role in the transformation taking place in the industry.

With controversy exploding around his administration, the Flint Water Crisis was the primary topic of Governor Snyder's State of the State address in January.

Another theme, mostly overlooked that night, will also likely have a huge impact on Michigan's future. Snyder wants to see the state become the center for connected and automated vehicles.

"I do think it's the right strategy," says John Maddox, President and CEO of the American Center for Mobility. “It really will revolutionize the way we think about moving people and goods for the next 100 years."

And for the state that put the country on wheels, it's critically important to stay out front.

"It keeps our flag in the sand and says this is an industry that's important to this state, says Stephanie Brinley, a senior analyst with IHS Automotive.

She is watching the development of the technology closely.

"And it's not just that FCA and GM and Ford are based here, it's also that we have a huge supplier base so there's a knowledge base that's pretty phenomenal," says Brinley.

One of those suppliers is Continental. The German-based company is already out testing its partially automated driving system on the road and the technology is at the core of its long-term business strategy.

A number of automotive suppliers, automakers and others are partnering with Mcity, the first-of-its kind facility at the University of Michigan, which aids in the development of early stage connected and automated systems.

"We said we need to build a place that looks like the real word that we can really test these vehicles," says Maddox.

I was along for the ride recently as Maddox toured the 32-acre facility that simulates challenging driving scenarios.

The Mcity prototype will be expanded with the facility in Willow Run - all this designed with the idea of keeping Michigan on the fast track in this transportation transformation.

The state is investing in its future by putting millions of dollars into the partnership that will turn the former B-52 bomber site at Willow Run into a high-tech and higher speed proving grounds to test, validate and verify connected and autonomous vehicles.

"The biggest driver for this is safety,” says Brinley. “At the end of the day, if you can figure out how to make cars safer on the road and make them crash less often and make those crashes less severe, you're saving a ton of money."

And lives, as Peter Sweatman of Cavita LLC points out while discussing the benefits of autonomous vehicles.

"There are 33,000 fatalities every year, still in this country and a very large proportion of those can be saved if we have very wide deployment of the automated and connected technology," says Sweatman.

The fatality count was even higher in the US in 2015, with more than 38,000 killed in traffic accidents.  Michigan experienced its deadliest driving year since 2008, with 963 traffic deaths, according to State Police figures.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is investigating a fatal accident involving a Tesla Model S. The automaker's Autopilot system was engaged at the time of the crash.

"Certainly amongst the public and the media those incidents have raised the level of understanding that these technologies are not perfect, they're not just around the corner," says Maddox.

The development of the proving grounds planned for Willow Run should go a long way toward making sure automated and in some cases driverless vehicles are truly road worthy.

But to John Maddox, it's clearly the future and he says it's essential Michigan continue its leadership position in development and testing.

"Any company that's operating today in the transportation space, be a vehicle OEM, a supplier or a service provider like ride-sharing, if they don't embrace this technology they will be left behind and probably out of business in 20 years," he says.

And that, Maddox says, validates Michigan's strategy of building on its automotive history by becoming the new center of the mobility industry. 

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