Michigan-California Battle of Test Sites Portends Future of Self-Driving Cars

The high-stakes race to control the future of self-driving automobiles, pitting Midwestern manufacturing country against the digital capital of Silicon Valley, is picking up speed now that both regions are bidding to become the first to establish the best testing facility for autonomous driving.

As “driverless” cars quickly have come up in the rear-view mirror of traditional automotive manufacturers, in technologies developed by digital giants, a struggle has emerged between the two camps over which will control the very future of the automobile industry. And the recent car accident in which a Google self-driving car hit a bus doesn’t seem to have even put a dent in the movement.

In some cases, companies in each camp are merging their efforts, but by and large, the battle for control of the self-driven steering wheel places not only U.S.-based automakers but also foreign car makers against the titans of the new era of business including Google, Apple and Uber.

“Most immediately, they are competing to get the biggest share of almost $4 billion in federal funding that has been proposed for the development of the technology.”

And as the time horizon for the fielding of self-driven cars gets closer and closer, a battle has emerged over whether Michigan or California will be the location of the best facilities for conducting the important testing that will determine whether automated driving really is ready for prime time. Most immediately, they are competing to get the biggest share of almost $4 billion in federal funding that has been proposed for the development of the technology.

Interests in the Great Lakes State are putting together a test track and related facilities at a 330-acre industrial ghost town near Ypsilanti, where B-24 bombers were built during World War II. Meanwhile, California backers are pushing a decommissioned navy base in Concord.

Michigan’s backers believe they have the upper hand already. “California is not the real world,” Debbie Dingell, the Democratic congresswoman who represents Ypsilanti, told Automotive News. “We’ve got real potholes,” not to mention cold weather, snow, and rain much of the year. “It’s a much more real-world scenario.”

The Michigan site features a triple-level overpass and underused lanes on nearby U.S. Highway 12. Also, Michigan can boast a very nearby self-driving test facility that already is operational, M City, which is affiliated with the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

For their part, the California backers cite 2,100 arid acres where 20 miles of roads weave around empty barracks, a mess hall, gymnasium and bowling alley—and one automotive client already, Honda Motor Co.

That site also is within 40 miles of Silicon Valley where the digital guts of self-driving technology is most advanced. “May the best organization win,” said Randy Iwasaki, head of the Contra Costa Transportation Authority, which oversees the California site.


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