May – June 2016 Commentary

autonomous vehicle car accident illustration
Illustration by James Yang

Automotive – Road Warrior

The shift from current traffic laws that require licensed drivers to operate a motor vehicle to an artificial intelligence system that navigates the roads will disrupt a host of traditional operations in the automotive industry. Earlier this year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said an autonomous vehicle system for a planned Google car could be considered the driver under federal law.

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Over time, as more autonomous vehicles make their debut, safety and insurance requirements that today focus on human drivers will center on securing the networks and software that remotely pilot a car from one location to another. That begs the question: Who, or what, is at fault following an accident involving a driverless car or truck?

Consider today’s vehicles have around 100 million lines of code. Autonomous vehicles will have exponentially more software that will monitor everything from engines to brakes, acceleration, lights, and numerous other systems. If something goes wrong — for example, a driverless car suddenly veers left into oncoming traffic — who is to blame if there’s a head-on collision with another vehicle?

Assuming a human driver didn’t cause the car to swerve, the onus will be on the manufacturer or supplier of the software code. Most likely, the NHTSA will require software providers to certify that the code they supply to the automakers is free of security breaches before it is uploaded to a vehicle’s navigation system.

While automakers and software firms can now repair faulty code remotely, in the same way computers and smartphones are upgraded over a network, autonomous vehicles present a different challenge. A hacker who gains access to a home or company security system may be able to unlock a door and enter a home or a business — but, in most cases, such crimes will be undertaken when no one is around.

But if a hacker gains control of a vehicle from something as seemingly minor as a tire pressure gauge sensor, there can be a host of immediate and life-threatening problems, including sudden acceleration, rapid braking, or locking the doors remotely and setting the climate control system at maximum heat on an extremely hot day.

Eventually, automakers and software providers will introduce stringent security systems to prevent a third party from gaining control of an autonomous vehicle, but there’s no guarantee such safety platforms will be foolproof. This summer, the NHTSA says it plans to introduce more guidelines for self-driving cars. The agency may also seek new legal authority over the transportation industry to provide for the safe integration of driverless vehicles into the road network.

If the consuming public wanted electric cars for regular use, Detroit would be manufacturing them by the millions. Only people infatuated with their own wonderful specialness would think that their job is to coerce both the manufacturers and the consuming public into something neither of them wants.

— Thomas Sowell, Author

But it could take several years for federal regulators and industry leaders to set new guidelines for the design, implementation, and operation of autonomous vehicle systems. In the interim, companies that can demonstrate the safe implementation of remote navigation platforms will be in the driver’s seat of a burgeoning and potentially robust industry.

Technology – Hyper-Speed

As internet providers race to provide ever-faster data speeds in Michigan and around the country, it’s clear the swift movement of electronic files is another selling point to retain and attract businesses and organizations. For example, large medical files can take as long as 24 hours to transmit from one location to another, which limits the amount of time medical personnel can assist a patient or learn more about a potential disease outbreak.

As we detailed in “Fiber Wars” (March/April 2016), companies and organizations of all sizes prefer faster data speeds, whether for simple emails, the transmission of large design files, or detailed manufacturing plans. E-commerce retailers, video providers, and consumers also prefer instant access to a range of online services.

Companies such as Southfield-based 123Net, which launched the Detroit Internet Exchange in 2014, are landing more clients by providing access to high-speed fiber lines in the region. Prior to 2014, large data files were transferred between here and other cities with Internet exchanges in places such as Illinois or Virginia. With the approaching debut of autonomous vehicles, the ability to move data quickly within metro Detroit will be a major benefit.

To better establish the region as a high-speed Internet hub, state and local economic development teams should create or add to marketing plans that tout Detroit’s data offerings. In this way, more businesses would be attracted to the region, while entrepreneurs would find it much easier to launch an online business or a data service operation. 

Government – Less is More

Michigan rode the coattails of a booming manufacturing industry to become the automotive capital of the world and, along the way, the resulting higher wages relative to other cities and states helped create a better quality of life here. As an example, consider all of the vacation homes, recreational vehicles, and prosperous downtown districts in northern Michigan. 

Few other states offer such a breadth of assets. But in recent years, as Michigan suffered more than most states from the 2008 global financial crisis, it became clear that our economy and tax dollars can no longer afford to prop up corporate and government institutions that suffer from mismanagement and neglect. General Motors Co., FCA US (Chrysler), a host of automotive suppliers, and the city of Detroit have all went through bankruptcies.

Things have improved, but the work isn’t over. The city of Highland Park, for example, may be better off being folded into the government structure of Detroit. It’s the same for Hamtramck, Royal Oak Township, and other smaller cities around the state. Neighboring communities essentially offer the same municipal services, meaning Royal Oak Township (population 2,419) might be better off being integrated into Oak Park or Ferndale.

In other words, should our tax dollars fund repetitive government structures in the form of city staffs, mayors or supervisors, and councils or commissions? While citizens should have the final vote, for the sake of improved efficiency, reducing the size and scope of government outside of providing essential services like clean water, infrastructure, and public safety is a matter for additional debate across the entire state.