Seun Phillips, the director of PlanetM, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation’s (MEDC) partnership of mobility organizations, clearly remembers his first hands-on--or, more accurately, hands-off (the steering wheel)--experience with driverless technology. It was a short ride on a May Mobility shuttle through the streets of downtown Detroit in the fall of 2017.

“I found it so awe-inspiring that I recorded the experience so I could show it to other people,” he says. “I remember being struck by how attainable the idea of driverless driving suddenly seemed.” With an extensive background in STEM education, Phillips was quite familiar with autonomous vehicle technology from a conceptual standpoint. “But actually riding in a driverless vehicle really drove home the reality of it for me.”

May Mobility is based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and it was founded by two veterans of the automotive industry. Michigan--at the epicenter of the traditional automotive ecosystem--has become a magnet for companies involved in the development of driverless technology.

Public and private sectors are both committed to advancing this technology

“Michigan has always been a center of the automotive industry, and it’s working to remain one by enabling the development of new and emerging technologies,” says Mark Aiello, a Detroit-based partner with the law firm of Foley & Lardner and co-chair of its automotive industry team. “There is a commitment by both the state and companies in Michigan to advance this technology. This kind of collaboration is critical in order to spur autonomous vehicle developments.”

Cars with LiDar, radar, GPS, and other technologies needed to enable autonomous driving will begin hitting the road within the next few years. But more work needs to be done in areas like artificial intelligence (AI), to improve decision-making capabilities; 3D mask technology, to sharpen object recognition; and vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication, to enable vehicles to wirelessly exchange information about their speed, location, and heading, before cars can become truly driverless. Much of this R&D is being done in Michigan by companies like these:

Mighty AI provides autonomous vehicle developers with TDaaS (its trademarked acronym for training data-as-a-service) for use with artificial intelligence applications. The technology simplifies the process of managing, labeling, and validating massive amounts of raw data throughout the autonomous vehicle development lifecycle. Mighty AI is a member of PlanetM Landing Zone, a partnership between the Detroit Regional Chamber, MEDC, and WeWork Detroit to attract and connect mobility-focused startups to Michigan’s automotive and economic development ecosystem. Mighty AI is partnering with the University of Michigan’s Mcity Test Facility to provide a new vehicle and pedestrian detection training dataset exclusively for Mcity members to train their machine learning models.

Karamba Security, another PlanetM Landing Zone member, is a developer of award-winning autonomous security products that prevent cyber-attacks on autonomous vehicles. The company’s Carwall solution prevents attacks targeting autonomous vehicles by automatically sealing electronic control units (ECUs) and car networks according to factory settings, so only legitimate operations from legitimate sources are allowed. Karamba’s SafeCAN solution prevents attacks targeting in-vehicle networks by providing automatic, seamless encryption between selected ECUs, ensuring that only commands from legitimate sources are received by the car’s safety systems.

Waymo is a self-driving technology company that started out as the Google self-driving car project in 2009. It became an independent company in 2016, the same year it launched its self-driving technology center in Novi, Michigan. Waymo vehicles equipped with autonomous driving technology have logged a total of more than 5 million miles, mostly on city streets. Partnering with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, Waymo has been testing a fleet of about 600 Chrysler Pacifica minivans to see how its technology stands up to Michigan’s tough winter weather. It plans to expand the fleet for its ride-hailing pilot program and public road testing.

Doug Mehl, lead partner in the automotive practice at management consulting firm A.T. Kearney, says to expect more R&D investments in Michigan in the coming years. “I wouldn’t measure R&D efforts on the amount of money being publicly announced, but rather on the university activity and industry partnerships of major players, who are serious about being in the autonomous space,” he says. “Companies are choosing to locate in Michigan primarily for its deep pool of R&D talent and vehicle knowledge. The major suppliers have deep roots here.”