Wild weather draws hands-free car testing to Michigan

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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The adverse weather in Michigan may be hard to drive in, but that’s exactly why self-driving vehicles are being testing in our state.

In the early stages of automation, car makers were using cameras to help the vehicles navigate. This worked well on clear roads, but winter weather made it more difficult. Snow covered-lines or sensors rendered the hands-free functions useless, forcing automakers to get more creative.

This year at the Michigan International Auto Show, some of the newest cars are sporting the latest tricks for dealing with the weather. A Mercedes in the Million Dollar Motorway is hiding a Doppler radar under its hood. Tools like Doppler radar are programmed into the car to help it “see” better through rain, snow, and fog.

While solutions like this propel the self-driving movement, auto analyst Mike Wall says a world full of autonomous cars is still a long way off.

“Between now and then, you see a lot of these awesome features that are helping the driver. They are driver aids,” said Wall of IHS Markit.

Until that day, automakers are looking for every possible challenge for their self-driving cars. Even though Silicon Valley has been a popular development site, Michigan is a prime destination for scientists to test their work.

“It doesn’t hurt us that we have literally the four seasons around us, so you don’t need to create these test environments. All you got to do is walk out in the middle of January — you are going to be there in the midst of wind and snow and eventually fog and rain,” said Wall.

While there are few autonomous tests sites worldwide, Michigan is currently home to three of them: Willow Run in Detroit, MCity at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and a lot at Flint’s Kettering University. Ford’s Willow Run facility is one of these biggest sites in existence. In these “mini cities,” hands-free vehicles encounter common obstacles like crosswalks and stop signs along with natural testing by Michigan’s changing weather.

“The governor has been doing a great job trying to attract that investment because there are other areas. Frankly, Uber is very active in Pennsylvania,” Wall said.

Experts say the ultimate solution for safe autonomous driving is for every car to be able to “talk” to each other within the network of cars.

“At the end of the day… there is only so much you can do to control elements. But if you have the cars actually communicating with each other, saying, ‘Hey I’m over here, I’m over here. You do this, I’ll do that,’ That’s kind of the ultimate solution,” Wall said.

Until then, scientists will have to find innovative ways to move the auto industry forward while continuing to keep everyone on the road safe.

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