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Week of April 22, 2013

Robotics Day speakers: State could lead in autonomous vehicles

Michigan roadways are likely to be among the earliest places where automated or self-driving cars will be deployed, John Maddox of the U-M Transportation Research Institute said at Robotics Day April 15.

“This is the place where it’s going to happen first,” Maddox, UMTRI’s director of collaborative program strategies, told the crowd of about 450 at the Jack Roth Stadium Club. “Michigan will be a hub for automated vehicle development. We’ve got state-of-the-art facilities and tests going on right now.”

Gov. Rick Snyder was the keynote speaker at U-M’s Robotics Day event April 15. Photo by Joseph Xu, Michigan Engineering Communications & Marketing.

More than 2,900 vehicles in the Ann Arbor area currently are taking part in UMTRI’s 30-month test of a sort of Internet for cars. Vehicles outfitted with wireless devices are communicating with each other and with infrastructure. The cars can alert drivers to potentially hazardous situations — one of the ways automated vehicles are expected to help make roads safer.

Maddox and other Robotics Day speakers predict that the convergence of U-M and other research institutions, the auto industry and a supportive state government will pave the way for the next generation of smart cars.

Michigan is one of several states considering legislation to license automated vehicles on public roads — a step considered important for advancing research. Gov. Rick Snyder, who gave the event’s keynote address, said he expects the legislation to pass soon.

“One of the roles of the state is to support this,” Snyder said. “Michigan should be a leader in all of this. If you look at our background as a manufacturing state and as an engineering state, we need to continue that path. It’s a great opportunity to create more and better jobs.”

Researchers stressed that self-driving vehicles aren’t “driverless,” or at least they won’t be for some time. On the nearest horizon are cars that work with human drivers.

Beyond UMTRI at the university, 25 faculty members in the College of Engineering are involved in robotics research. Their work has applications in manufacturing, health care, automotive, defense and other areas, said Dawn Tillbury, professor of mechanical engineering.

“You might not see how much is going on here because we’re scattered across departments, but there’s a lot of activity,” said Ryan Eustice, assistant professor of naval architecture and marine engineering, and electrical engineering and computer science. Eustice is collaborating on an autonomous vehicle project with the Ford Motor Co.

Engineering faculty soon will submit a robotics Ph.D. program proposal to Rackham Graduate School for consideration. And they’re exploring the possibility of a robotics institute to bring together faculty from across the disciplines.

In addition to transportation, automation is advancing health care and manufacturing and it has an important role to play in the future of the state’s economy.

“Michigan has all of the pieces needed to produce a robust and dynamic robotics industry. Technology innovators, providers and users are all here,” said Rick Jarman, president and CEO of the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences, which sponsored the event with U-M. “Our ability to collaborate with each other will be the key to our success.”

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