On the outskirts of the University of Michigan campus an interested observer can watch a sensor-connected car steered by an Xbox controller roaming the streets of what is known as M-City to test self-driving and other connected-car technologies.
Michigan, known for its auto industry expertise experienced a steep decline a decade ago when Detroit lost half its population as manufacturing jobs left in droves, but it is now fighting back to build a burgeoning tech scene. Ann Arbor, only 40 minutes away, is completing the journey, harnessing the university’s high-tech talent factory and the state’s auto factory history to be at the forefront of next-generation vehicle development.
Self-driving car city M-City is a public-private partnership funded by 70 members including major car manufacturers, chip makers, wireless and insurance companies. Every year, it receives about $1.2 million to research things like how humans will interact with self-driving cars and how cities will need to be designed for them.
Greg McGuire, M-City Lab Director explained that:
“There’s a lot of disruption happening in a very short time frame. We’re running living laboratories to test capabilities and effects.”
M-City at Ann Arbor is also wirelessly connected using vehicle-to-vehicle communications technology called DSRC so that intersections and vehicle can communicate with each other. To this end, 2,000 privately owned vehicles are “driving” around Ann Arbor broadcasting messages back and forth 10 times a second. But the problem is there aren’t enough investors tuned in to Michigan startups, and not enough Michigan-based investors in general. As more and more Silicon Valley companies move into the self-driving car market, Michigan has stiff competition for investment, talent and attention.
Currently, there are 141 venture-backed startup companies in Michigan, an increase of 48% over the last 5 years.
But an estimated $504 million of additional venture capital will be needed to adequately fund the growth of those companies over the next two years alone. Every $1 invested in a Michigan startup by a Michigan-based venture capital firm attracts $4.61 of investment from outside Michigan.
Michigan also faces another problem in the race to develop autonomous vehciles – old-fashioned Midwestern humility, as Michigan Governor Rick Snyder puts it. Even though Michigan is one of the better-performing Midwestern states when it comes to startups, he says, people don’t know about it. “We have to do a better job telling our story — no one else is going to tell it for us.”