The push for autonomous technology is pitting cities and states against each other in a race to be the first to jump onto the self-driving highway.
Winning favor as a premier site for testing self-driving vehicles is expected to pay economic dividends as these regions compete for bragging rights to be the transformative front-runner.
Strategy Analytics, a research firm, predicts that the “passenger economy,” a segment emerging based on pilotless vehicles, will grow to $800 billion in 2035 and then to $7 trillion by 2050.
To be sure, this isn’t a battle being fought only in the U.S.
In Singapore, French automaker Groupe PSA will integrate self-driving technology developed by startup nuTonomy into Peugeot SUVs that will begin on-road testing in September.
And in Germany, the federal government joined with regional authorities in Bavaria and the auto and tech industry to create the Digital Motorway Test Bed, on several sections of the Autobahn 9 that connects Berlin and Munich via Leipzig and Nuremberg.
Autonomous driving has become crucial for many areas because it’s the convergence of technology and traditional automotive engineering regardless of vehicle type, said Larry Gigerich, executive managing director of Ginovus, an economic-development consulting firm in Fishers, Ind.
“That’s why so many places are bubbling up and focusing on getting a piece,” Gigerich said.
There may be a prize for all participants in the race toward autonomy.
“There is going to be enough work to go around,” Eric Paul Dennis, a Center for Automotive Research analyst at the University of Michigan, told Trucks.com. “There will be too much activity to condense into a single or even a few centers.”
Still, some regions will strive for a place on the podium. Consider Nevada and Michigan.
Nevada has never been a crucial node in the technology or automotive worlds. Yet the state was a mover in the testing of self-driving trucks and recently passed a bill to support more aggressive testing of autonomous vehicles. Its strategy is backed by the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, which was founded by heavy hitters, including Ford Motor Co., Lyft, Uber, Volvo Car Group and Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo.
Now the Reno regional transit authority is working with University of Nevada researchers and electric bus builder Proterra, to launch the industry’s first autonomous bus program. The pilot will test real-world road challenges faced by public transit systems such as traffic and weather.
“Nevada is making gains in part because of our range of weather, from desert to deep snows in the mountains, and also because California has proven much more restrictive in what it requires for testing,” said Dennis Cuneo, a Reno-based economic-development consultant.
But to capture such a slice of a potentially multitrillion-dollar market, upstart Nevada must compete against entrenched incumbents such as Michigan.
Michigan’s deeply rooted interests are trying to ensure that testing of self-driving vehicles occurs mainly in the cradle of the American automotive industry.
“We’re going to be partnering around the country, but Silicon Valley isn’t the only place that this innovation is happening,” Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), told Trucks.com. “We have to make sure we remain at the forefront in Michigan.”
With big boosts from state legislation and taxpayer coffers, Michigan’s industrial and technology development is in full swing.
Among the hot spots is Mcity, a completely self-enclosed, 32-acre testing center operated in Ann Arbor and developed by the University of Michigan and the Michigan Department of Transportation. The grounds, which opened in 2015 and sit on the university’s North Campus, include approximately five lane-miles of roads with intersections, traffic signals and obstacles such as construction barriers.
Most ambitiously, about 40 miles away the state, automakers, major suppliers and others are investing $70 million to convert a former World War II bomber plant and airfield into a 335-acre test facility.
The nonprofit American Center for Mobility, or ACM, will boast a complex track meant to replicate every road condition, including urban and suburban street simulations, a 2.5-mile highway loop and a replica of a warehouse-club docking facility to test autonomous trucks in first- and last-mile logistics. The center is slated to become operational in December, a little more than a year after groundbreaking.
John Maddox, chief executive of the American Center for Mobility, told Trucks.com that the facility will be the first center in the U.S. big enough to conduct testing on a life-size scale.
Other programs focused on developing standards as the industry takes shape, and sharing best practices will be critical to the center’s mission, Maddox said. “We’ll be attractive to developers right away because we are including these other things.”
In early August, Toyota announced a $5-million investment and gave an early endorsement to the center’s efforts.
“The new ACM closed-course facility is a significant step forward in this journey and will accelerate our ability to help prevent crashes and save lives,” Gill Pratt, chief executive of Toyota Research Institute, said in a statement.
Creating vehicles as safe as human drivers will require billions of miles in simulation, real-world and closed-course testing scenarios, Pratt said.
Navya – a French company that develops self-driving electric people movers is one of the few players that has touched down in both Nevada and Michigan.
Last December, Navya introduced its fully autonomous electric shuttle, Arma, at Mcity. The company tested the shuttle in self-driving mode with a human backup driver. A new Michigan law will allow for two 15-passenger Arma shuttles to travel a nonstop two-mile route between the Lurie Engineering Center and the university’s North Campus Research Complex on Plymouth Road.
Arma made a landmark desert appearance. In January, the shuttle traversed a public street in downtown Las Vegas, the first for a vehicle of its kind in the U.S.
“Geographic diversity in testing is important,” said Pierre Eliott Petit, Navya’s head of operations for North America. “What’s going to happen in December with snow in Michigan? And also in Nevada, with summer temperatures almost 110 degrees.”
Navya will begin testing a longer Las Vegas route in collaboration with public transit operator Keolis by the end of this year, he said.
Navya is developing a 20,000-square foot production plant in Saline, Mich., and plans to build 20 of its Arma shuttles by year end.
But the states of Michigan and Nevada are up against some eager municipalities that want in on autonomous vehicle development.
Waymo, with its headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., has logged thousands of self-driving miles in and around Silicon Valley, but the company also is targeting sites outside state lines. It has tested in Austin, Tex., and Phoenix.
Maddox and others emphasized the importance of cooperation among all of these testing hot spots to ensure that U.S. companies establish and maintain a lead over the rest of the world in self-driving technology.
The federal government is also moving to expedite autonomous vehicle testing.
Last week the House Energy and Commerce Committee voted 54-0 in favor of developing self-driving legislation on a federal level. Such legislation would allow the government to preempt individual states in setting standards for autonomous vehicle testing, speeding the process.
The proposed legislation “brings the U.S. closer to the vision of a single, national framework for self-driving vehicles on our roads and highways,” David Strickland, general counsel for the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, which is lobbying for a federally regulated testing environment, said in a statement.
Rolling out state-by-state testing guidelines could slow development for the U.S. Truck companies pushing for platooning – digitally tethered lines of heavy-duty commercial vehicles driving in formation to reduce drag – are already facing hurdles from a hodgepodge of traffic laws.