University of Michigan sets goal of driverless car network by 2021

The University of Michigan has announced a collaboration with government and business to make its hometown of Ann Arbor the first American city with a shared fleet of networked, driverless vehicles by 2021.

The school's Mobility Transformation Center is pursuing the goal of having a driverless vehicle system in operation within eight years, Michigan said.

"Ann Arbor will be seen as the leader in 21st century mobility," Peter Sweatman, director of the university's Transportation Research Institute, said in a statement. "We want to demonstrate fully driverless vehicles operating within the whole infrastructure of the city within an eight-year timeline and to show that these can be safe, effective and commercially successful."

Researchers are conducting a street-level connected vehicle experiment called Safety Pilot that involves 3,000 area residents in networked vehicles.

Last month, the university's regents approved a $6.5 million, 30-acre driverless car test site near the school's North Campus. It's a joint project with industry and government that "will simulate a dynamic cityscape where researchers can test how the vehicles perform in complex urban settings, said university spokeswoman Nicole Casal Moore.

School researchers, she said, believe that such "autonomous vehicles could change how people and goods move around in a way that the auto industry hasn't seen since its inception."

"We've now entered into a period where the technology and the business models are coming together to allow us to break out of this 100-year dependence on what we've always known," said Larry Burns, a Michigan engineering professor and former head of research and development for General Motors.

For self-driving vehicles to bring about this kind of revolutionary change, they have to be at the center of what Burns describes as a reimagined transportation system in which vehicles are networked and shared. For Burns, the reason to move toward driverless vehicles is simple — preventing crashes and saving lives.

"Worldwide, 1.2 million people die on roadways every year. That's epidemic in scale," he said.

"Bees swarm. Geese flock. And they're not running into each other," Burns said. "There has to be a way in which cars can move around and not crash. We know the algorithms exist. That's part of the exciting thing about driverless or automated vehicles. We're developing cars that don't crash."