Inside Extreme Scale Tech|Saturday, December 27, 2014
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Snyder Pushes Michigan to Approve Driverless Cars 

It’s easy to laugh at the image of the 21st century that generations past have conjured up: flying cars, robot servants, and other commodities exclusive to books and TV shows like The Jetsons. But self-driving cars are not as far away as we may think. Just this week, Governor Rick Snyder made it the center of his keynote address at this year’s Michigan Robotics Day.

As the traditional center of automotive R&D in the United States, Snyder has made it his goal to make Michigan the fourth state in the country to legalize autonomous vehicles. California and Nevada already approved autonomous vehicle licensing procedures that allow automakers to test their self-driving prototypes on public roads that provide unmatched real-world conditions.

The scope and significance of testing these vehicles on all sorts of public streets was hammered home by Alberto Broggi, professor of computing engineering at the University of Parma and CEO of VisLab, who also spoke at the event.

Together with his team, Broggi conducted a 13,000-kilometer driverless roadtrip from Italy to China in 2010 called the VisLab Intercontinental Autonomous Challenge. This entailed negotiating all kinds of terrain, road layouts, speed limits, and all degrees of road congestion. The journey’s path also meant managing the logistics of passing through multiple countries, each with its own traffic laws, languages, road signs and police.

Ultimately, Broggi showed attendees that this technology does indeed work. But his speech also illustrated just how important real-world testing is to delivering these autonomous cars to consumers—a message that further underscored Snyder’s call for autonomous vehicle legislation.

One company that already has driverless cars on U.S. roads is Google, who let Synder behind the wheel of one of their models. As he reported on his tour in one of California’s Google cars, it was clear that Snyder is impressed with just how far the technology has come.

“When you’re sitting in that vehicle, you can see how it’s analyzing all these decisions much like you would as a normal driver,” Synder explained. “And it’s able to do it faster and better than many of us could as human drivers.”

Still, Google isn’t the only player in the race to the autonomous car, and Snyder knows it. There are over 300 companies involved in automotive R&D in Michigan, and part of the goal of this event was to draw attention to this cause, the SMBs that are also involved, and to ensure that there will be an avenue through which these companies can get involved in this market.

So how do you give SMBs the power to see their innovations through? After all, robotics and other automation tools are usually kept behind the scenes: within factory walls or buried within the inner workings of your car, which can keep them from getting the attention they deserve.

To begin, the keynote focused on the importance of STEM education, the hotbed cultivating engineers of tomorrow. The emphasis on this foundation was not exclusive to the keynote address. Naturally, researchers across universities and community colleges were in attendance, but they weren’t even the youngest roboticists making a splash.

Phil Callihan, director of strategic projects at NCMS, noted that one highlight that came seemingly out of left field was actually a group of highschoolers. What the team presented was a remotely operated aquatic vehicle that they designed and built to recover WWII artifacts from the western Pacific Ocean. Among some of the target artifacts are aircraft that crash landed near Palau, an island nation within Micronesia.

Not only did the highschoolers develop the robot themselves, they have also designed a business around it, complete with a marketing team that has been responsible for the project’s fundraising and promotion.

This range of talent displayed at Michigan Robotics Day demonstrated just how broad the reach of STEM and robotics programs extends. This generation is one that has grown up in a society where computers and mobile devices have always been ubiquitous, which can offer a substantial leg up in growing comfortable enough with robotics to create something innovative.

Ultimately, this will be key to keeping robotics and automation technology within Michigan borders. If even younger individuals are still designing and building unique and useful robots, there is still plenty of room for a start-up or SMB to deliver the next technology to change the world of automation.

Because of this, attendees such as Callihan anticipate robotic technologies may soon join computers as must-have items.

“You can look at any number of technologies,” said Callihan. “You can look at computers. Computers are everywhere… and I think that’s what we’re going to see with robotics. We’re going to see it more and more working with people and creating new jobs and opportunities.”

But whether Snyder’s call to action works, and these robots come from Michigan, remains another question entirely.

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