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States are racing to attract the self-driving car industry. How does Michigan compare?

Aug 13, 2015

MCity, the University of Michigan's testing site for self-driving cars.
Credit University of Michigan

"MCity" is the 32-acre replica suburb designed to let researchers test self-driving cars in real-world conditions, safely away from pedestrians and other vehicles.

Its recent opening in Ann Arbor is a clear sign that Michigan intends to be a leader in developing self-driving cars.

MCity is just one expression of a very interesting "courtship dance" between states like Michigan and auto companies.

Dino Grandoni looked at the "gold rush" of self-driving cars in a recent piece for the New York Times.

Experts estimate that car companies will spend $20 billion over the next five years on the development and testing of self-driving cars.

With a price tag that large, Michigan is one of many states competing for the industry's investment. Virginia also has a number of test facilities and they’re marketing their congested highways as the ideal conditions for testing. Florida is also building their very own replica city.

Grandoni says a Texas State Sentator recently attempted to pass a bill to place regulations on self-driving cars, but carmakers and Google rallied against it. It never passed. Google is now testing in the state.

"If there is no state law explicitly banning the testing and the sale of self-driving cars, then they have the right to do that," Grandoni says.

But for the car and tech industry, blocking these regulations isn't just so they can test in a variety of areas, it's planning for the future.

"I think carmakers are interested in preventing a patchwork of legislation from spreading across the states, where California has different rules from Michigan, and Michigan has different rules from Florida. It's very hard for carmakers to conform to all those different laws if there isn't some uniformity."

Grandoni says Congress has been slow to address regulation on a national level, but any accidents will be sure to spur a speedy response.

And that will be true not only in Congress, but in the courts.

It’s currently unclear who would be at fault for an accident, the person behind the wheel, or the company who created the car's software?

"The experts I've talked to have said a lot of those issues will end up being settled in the courts," says Grandoni.

While there are many different places around the country vying for the industry's investments, Grandoni says it's in carmakers' best interest to test in all different regions.

"There are different weather conditions and different types of roads in all the different states,” and they want to test in all different conditions.

Google has been conducting most of their testing in sunny Silicon Valley. If they ever want to test in snow, MCity will be here.