By Kirk Steudle, Director of Michigan Department of Transportation

When it comes to connected and automated vehicles, you could say I was an early adopter. My interest in this technology dates back more than a decade and while there are many benefits, none matter more than the potential to save lives.

At the Michigan Department of Transportation, safety is paramount. It defines everything the department does from road and bridge design to managing work sites to overseeing the work of contractors. That is why MDOT has embraced an ambitious Toward Zero Deaths goal.

Some 40,000 people died on our nation’s roads last year, yet the reporting seems to fade into the background.

That is the equivalent of 400 plane crashes with 100 passengers each. Such catastrophes would each generate wall-to-wall media coverage. Yet, we seem to just accept the automobile crash deaths that happen a few at a time.

Most researchers estimate driverless cars could, by mid-century, reduce traffic deaths by as much as 90 percent. In the U.S. alone, that would mean saving 300,000 lives over a decade.

Let’s face it. The exponential advent of technology shows no sign of slowing. That technology both enables and demands multitasking. Multi-tasking might be fine in some instances, but not when it comes to driving. Despite ever-evolving laws and prolific safety messages, distracted driving continues to cause more crashes. Crash deaths have been trending in the wrong direction despite tremendous strides by automakers in building safer vehicles with airbags, antilock brakes, and more recently, lane departure warnings, adaptive cruise control, forward and rear assist, and more.

For those reasons, I’m thrilled that policymakers here are engaged in creating a supportive regulatory framework while keeping the focus on safety. Toward that end, with overwhelming bipartisan support, Gov. Snyder signed a package of bills in late 2016 that made Michigan the first state in the nation to establish comprehensive regulations for the testing, use, and eventual sale of autonomous vehicle technology. The groundbreaking legislation provides more accurate and proper testing of automated vehicles on real roads in real situations. The legislation also established the Michigan Council on Future Mobility, a 21-member advisory committee charged with, among other items, recommending policies that ultimately influence industry standards.

As a co-chair of this important group, I had the privilege of presenting the Michigan Council on Future Mobility’s 2018 Annual Report to Gov. Snyder last month.

Key recommendations from the report include:

  • Educating itself and policymakers on future mobility, from needs to solutions, for all modes of transportation.
  • Connecting the public and private sectors to foster innovation and practical advances in mobility.
  • Engaging local communities and partners to promote and advance personal mobility.
  • Promoting equitable access to future mobility options, especially for those who are economically disadvantaged, persons with disabilities, and seniors.
  • Ensuring effective cybersecurity standards for safe and efficient transportation.
  • Addressing and evaluating implications for risk management, insurance, and product liability laws.
  • Assessing the need for structural improvements to public and private infrastructure to facilitate deployment of new technologies that enhance personal mobility across all modes of transportation.

Michigan’s forward thinking also resulted in last month’s grand opening of the American Center for Mobility (ACM). This unique testing hub west of Detroit serves as the destination for mobility companies to take their innovations from the drawing board to the open road. And the world-class, federally designated facility would not have been possible without the collective efforts of corporate founders, industry, and government and academic partners engaged and committed to making ACM a reality.

Our commitment to fostering transportation innovation and collaboration not only crosses sectors, but also borders. Just last year, Michigan and Ontario joined forces to execute North America’s first international, cross-border automated vehicle test drive across the Canadian and U.S. border.

While safety is the over-riding imperative, there are other vital benefits to automated or driverless cars. Chief among these are the extension of the freedom that comes with personal mobility in our golden years. If any of you have been in the position of taking a parent or other elderly relative’s keys, you know how painful that can be.

My state has one of the oldest populations in the country, with 14 percent of residents being 65 or older in the 2010 census.

Because of the prospect of providing more of us with mobility options and the myriad safety benefits mentioned previously, I am thrilled at the collaboration among Michigan private industry, government, and academia to lead in this area.

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