One science and technology area expected to keep rolling toward reality this year is driverless cars (also known as autonomous vehicles). But industry experts say much work is needed before we see many such vehicles in Southeastern Wisconsin. Still, a lot of time and money are being spent on the concept, including elsewhere in the Midwest.
For example, at a 32-acre proving ground called MCity, on the University of Michigan campus, Lab Director Greg McGuire recently joined three people in a Lincoln MKZ sedan that was modified to allow a programmed computer to tell it where to go. Soon, the vehicle was rolling through a mock city of fake storefronts.
"We're in automated mode. I don't know if you can see, but the steering wheel's moving on its own," McGuire said to his fellow passengers.
It wasn’t a totally autonomous vehicle. A graduate student sat at the steering wheel, ready to take over if needed. But during the 10-minute ride, very little attention was paid to the road — just one of the advantages touted by promoters of driverless cars. Other advocates say autonomous vehicles will also be able to take you to the doctor if you're sick and keep you on the road if you're sleepy.
Also on the visit to MCity, about a dozen members of the Society of Environmental Journalists rode in an electric shuttle bus made by the French firm Navya.
The guide was Project Manager Sarah Wentzloff, who said the rubber-tired bus rolls on the pavement but uses fixed-route technology as if it was on a train track. Wentzloff also said safety is a priority.
"If there's an obstacle in its way, the vehicle will stop. That obstacle could be a car. It could be a squirrel running across the road. It could be a person walking. It could be a parked vehicle,” Wentzloff said.
Also for safety reasons, the top speed of the bus is only 12 mph and there is a human conductor who can maneuver the shuttle if needed. Still, the University of Michigan is excited enough about the technology that the driverless bus has been used off and on for about six months on a 2-mile loop in a quieter part of campus.
MCity is hardly the only place in the Midwest where work with autonomous vehicles is underway. A Navya shuttle bus has also been tested on the UW-Madison campus, and owners of a private test track in Burlington, Wis., report they have several clients.
The largest test site in the U.S. for self-driving cars is in Ypsilanti, Michigan, at the American Center for Mobility. Several automakers and communications companies are investors in testing vehicles on 500 acres that used to be the site of a production plant for WWII bombers , then later a transmission plant for General Motors.
During a bus tour, Center Vice President Mark Chaput pointed to a six-lane intersection that can simulate hazards.
"If you've got a sideswipe, if you have a left-turn movement, again, any type of crash that's occurring in an intersection, you could recreate it here at our facility," Chaput said.
He mentions the need for some autonomous vehicles to connect.
"How vehicles communicate to vehicles, how vehicles communicate to the infrastructure. All that can be demonstrated here. We can work out all the bugs in a controlled environment," Chaput explained.
But the cost of working out the bugs, and keeping them out, worries Sam Abuelsamid, of the management consultant firm Navigant Research. Abuelsamid says if driverless cars are marketed, potential buyers will realize they will need occasional software and security updates.
"A premium customer might be willing to pay the upfront cost of that or the subscription for those updates. But for mainstream customers, the affordability starts to degrade very rapidly,” Abuelsamid said.
He says autonomous vehicles might have a smoother financial road when used in car-sharing or with industrial truck fleets.
The Foxconn Corporation has said it may want to use some driverless or partly automated trucks or shuttle buses at the huge factory it's building in Racine County. But even that use will be at least several years away.
The State of Wisconsin is also paying attention to autonomous vehicles. A steering committee submitted a report to Gov. Scott Walker last summer.
Meantime, even partly-automated cars face somewhat of an image problem. A few fatal or injury-causing crashes have taken place when driver assistance features failed or were misused.
Also, the New York Times reported Dec. 31 that more than two dozen attacks on driverless vehicles in Arizona have taken place over the last two years. An author quoted in the story suggests some people don’t like more technology corporations controlling cars, or are worried about a possible loss of jobs driving vehicles.
Do you have a question about innovation in Wisconsin that you'd like WUWM's Chuck Quirmbach to explore? Submit it below.