Empty cabs: Are driverless vehicles the answer to Michigan’s trucker shortage?

by Ted Roelofs / Bridge Magazine

With no obvious near-term answer to the shortage of truck drivers, could it be that science fiction delivers the final solution?

Caterpillar is already operating driverless trucks in mining operations in remote parts of Australia, a move company officials say saves both money and mistakes. In July, a driverless car navigated the streets of an Italian city in public traffic. Google has logged more than 500,000 miles with its demonstration fleet of automated vehicles, while Nevada, Florida and California have passed legislation that allows testers to operate autonomous cars.

State Sen. Mike Kowall, R-White Lake, wants Michigan to join the club.

Kowall introduced legislation earlier this year to legalize testing of driverless vehicles, a measure he believes will advance Michigan’s stake in this rapidly developing field of technology.

He noted one estimate by Forbes Magazine that calculates as much as $2 trillion a year could be up for grabs.

“If there is that much money going into research and development and manufacturing, wouldn’t it be great to have that in Michigan?”

Steven Gursten, a Farmington Hills personal injury lawyer who specializes in transportation litigation, predicts the shift to driverless vehicles will come first to commercial trucking.

“I wonder if it’s 10 years from now or 20 years. But there will be a seismic shift. The economic incentive is too powerful,” Gursten said.

Gursten bases that on 20 years of trial experience and some 400 cases in which he said one overriding factor was at stake in truck crashes: driver error.

“We call them truck accidents, but they really are not. An accident kind of suggests it was an act of God and it was unavoidable and the reality is the exact opposite.

“I have a client now who lost both legs and had over 20 surgeries because the truck driver was on his cell phone on I-94 and he dropped his cell phone and reached down to pick it up and looked up and my client’s car was in front of him.

“He literally cut the car in two.”

According to the United States Department of Transportation, large-truck crashes killed more than 3,600 people in 2010. A 2007 DOT study found driver error responsible for 87 percent of truck accidents, with 10 percent due to vehicle defect and 3 percent due to weather or environmental conditions. Driver fatigue was cited in 13 percent of the crashes and inattention in 9 percent.

In 2000, it pegged the cost of large-truck crashes in 1997 at $24 billion.

If – and it remains a big if – driverless technology can be perfected, the pluses for commercial freight are obvious. Automated trucks do not require wages, health care benefits or vacation time. They do not take drugs, drop cell phones or fall asleep. They don’t go on strike.

The stakes are considerable in a state like Michigan, in which 25 percent of U.S.-Canada truck freight – some $80 billion worth of goods a year – moves across a single crossing, Detroit’s Ambassador Bridge.

To be sure, the “driverless” vehicles thus far under public road testing are not without human oversight. Google’s vehicles, while guided by $150,000 worth of laser radar, mapping technology and other sensors, are occupied by a driver ready to take control if needed.

Auburn Hills-based Continental Automotive Systems is among the high-tech firms invested in autonomous vehicles. It has logged thousands of test miles on a Volkswagen Passat equipped with technologies like forward-facing radar and adaptive cruise control. When fully activated, the car steers, brakes and accelerates or decelerates when needed and generally behaves like a car with a competent driver.

It hopes to have a fully autonomous car by 2025.

The mining trucks in use in Australia fill a niche industrial role, hardly a parallel for everyday over-the-road commercial use. With a payload of 250 tons, the massive trucks use sophisticated guidance systems to haul layers of rock and dirt up and down steep grades. They are monitored by specialists in a control room miles away, part of a system Caterpillar hopes to expand to 45 trucks. That would eliminate 180 drivers.

Truck driver Daniel Taylor is skeptical.

In his view, it’s one thing to run an automated vehicle on a test track or in some remote mining operation. It’s quite another to safely steer 40 tons of semi- tractor-trailer through freeway rush-hour traffic or over slick winter roads.

“Whoever thought of that idea needs to have their head examined,” said Taylor, 37, a Genesee County resident with seven years behind the wheel of heavy trucks.

“There are too many split decisions you have to make. Is the computer going to be able adjust to freezing rain? If somebody cuts you off and you have to put on the brakes, what are you going to do?

“You are putting a computer in charge of 80,000 pounds of weight on the highway. That’s like putting a child in the driver’s seat. I know I wouldn’t want to be in a car in front of a truck with nobody in it.”

Econ zone plan has merit, will help area, region

From the Marquette Mining Journal

During a trip through the Upper Peninsula last week, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder voiced public support for the creation of a new district under the Next Michigan Development Act, a concept that we have praised in the past.

The act, passed into law in 2010, allows for the creation of five regional economic development corporations to assist in economic development throughout the state. Now established, each of the five corporations – none are currently located in the U.P. – are given access to a handful of special development tools, including the creation of renaissance zones and the abatement of some personal property and industrial taxes.

Elected officials hailing from the U.P., including State Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, and State Rep. John Kivela, D-Marquette, are backing legislation that would amend the law to include the creation of a sixth district comprised largely of Marquette and Delta counties.

Other zones are located along the I-69 corridor, in Grand Traverse County and in the Detroit area. Officials have said the central U.P. is a prime candidate for a zone, as it is home to a population of about 110,000, a multi-modal transportation system and nearly three dozen manufacturers that employ more than 15,000.

From an economic development standpoint, we believe this is a plan that could help to place the U.P. on similar footing with other downstate regions and could result in additional opportunities for both funding and cross-peninsula cooperation.

State Sen. Mike Kowall, R-White Lake, the chair of the Senate's Economic Development Committee, spoke in support of the legislation in Escanaba last week during a meeting in which members of his committee heard testimony on the subject.

"I look forward to these things being done real soon," said Kowall, who added that his group would pass the bills out of committee in early September.

During last week's Escanaba hearing, about two dozen people voiced support for the plan, including Snyder, Michigan Department of Natural Resources Director Keith Creagh, DNR Chief of Forest Resources Bill O'Neill and Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Director Dan Wyant.

We are pleased to see such broad support for this plan, which has also received public praise by numerous municipal governments. If it comes to fruition, the creation of a sixth corporation under the Next Michigan Development Act could be a major boon for the region north of the Mackinac Bridge.

For municipalities, especially smaller units of government like those located in the U.P., state funding is getting ever more difficult to come by. Now, more than ever, is the time for cooperation.

On a broader scale, we love to see such bipartisan, bicameral cooperation from the U.P.'s elected officials. As we have said for years, the more our elected representatives are able to speak in Lansing with one voice, the better it will be for residents in all 15 counties of Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

Leaders talk economic growth

From the Escanaba Daily Press

ESCANABA – State leaders, including the Governor, testified at a Senate hearing in Escanaba Thursday, each supporting legislation for an economic development district in Delta and Marquette counties.

Three senators on the seven-member Senate Economic Development Committee participated in the local hearing. Though a quorum was not present, each expressed support for creation of a "Next Michigan Development District" to promote economic growth in the two-county area.

There are five "micropolitan" districts downstate eligible for state funding and tax incentives to encourage economic development. Senate bills 397 and 398 propose to amend the law to allow the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) to add a district tailored for the central U.P.

Sen. Mike Kowall, of downstate White Lake, chaired the hearing, telling those in attendance that the proceeding was being held in Escanaba to bring Lansing to the people.

At the session's conclusion, Kowall said the committee will vote the two Senate bills out of committee on Sept. 5 so the proposals can continue their way through the legislation process.

"I look forward to these things being done real soon," Kowall commented, later adding, "Michigan is on the comeback and looking forward to a brighter future."

Other committee members in attendance Thursday were Sen. Jim Ananich of Flint and Sen. Virgil Smith of Detroit. Dave Biswas, Kowall's legislative director, also assisted.

Sen. Tom Casperson (R-Escanaba), who sponsored the Senate legislation, and Rep. John Kivela (D-Marquette), a sponsor of similar House bills, also sat on the panel to hear public testimony.

Two dozen individuals spoke at the hearing representing government, business and education sectors from Delta and Marquette counties as well as other areas in the U.P. and the state. Comments related to natural resources, agriculture, transportation, road maintenance, waterways, energy, and communication needs in the region.

Gov. Rick Snyder was the first to speak. He expressed his support for expanding economic opportunities in Michigan.

He specifically mentioned U.P. industries including mining, timber production, agriculture and manufacturing.

Snyder has been visiting the area during fair week. He praised local companies for their outstanding work but noted that young people continue to need more skilled training opportunities to meet workforce demands.

Department of Natural Resources Director Keith Creagh expressed his support for improving the region's economy, offering specific projects underway such as trail expansions and waterway dredging.

DNR Chief of Forest Resources Bill O'Neill said that Michigan, especially the U.P., has an opportunity to be a real driver of economic development in the forest products industry. He added the state wants to partner with companies to help the industry become stronger.

Department of Environmental Quality Director Dan Wyant commented the state's natural resources are unique and make people want to work, live and visit here. Michigan's waterways are fundamental to national and world agriculture production, a trend that will increase, he added.

James McBryde, vice president of governmental affairs for the MEDC, said Snyder's administration and the agency "strongly support" the legislation for the economic development district in the U.P.

"This proposal relies on the total cooperation between Marquette and Delta counties," noted McBryde.

Spinal Column: Preparing your kids to head back to school

By Sen. Mike Kowall
15th Senate District
It seems like just yesterday that school was letting out and Michigan schoolchildren were jumping off the bus, excited about the long summer that lay ahead of them.
Now the dog days of summer are winding down, the weather will soon be turning cool again, and our kids will be heading back to school. With a few weeks of summer left, it is time for us as parents to play our important roles: Ensuring that our children are prepared to learn and helping foster success throughout the year.
A quality education has always played an important role in ensuring that today’s children become tomorrow’s skilled employees, honest leaders and productive job providers. In today’s digital, global economy, education is even more critical. A strong desire to learn in a child is a key to educational success, and active parents and proactive teachers have a major impact in fostering this desire.
Research has shown that students whose parents are involved in their school work are more motivated and set higher career goals than students whose parents are less involved. While helping our children understand classroom material at an early age helps improve their chances for success in high school and college, parents visiting their child’s school has also been cited as a key factor in a student’s development. 
I encourage all parents in the 15th District to try to make time to help and support your young students. For assistance in this endeavor, the Michigan Department of Education has many useful resources available on its website at www.michigan.gov/mde. The “Parent Engagement” section offers numerous links and information that can be tremendously helpful.
If you are a parent of a first-time student, you may be feeling overwhelmed right now. That’s okay; you probably have a lot of information to process. But relax. You will get through this. Remember, first of all, to simply be a parent to your child, and be available to them.
Ensure your child gets plenty of sleep, arrives to school on time, completes their homework and eats healthy meals. Build up your child’s self-confidence with positive reinforcement and encouragement. These foundations are as essential as anything else in ensuring a child’s academic success.
I wish all the parents and children of the 15th District a happy and prosperous school year!
Senator Mike Kowall, R-White Lake, is the chair of the Senate Economic Development Committee. He serves the residents of the 15th Senate District, representing western Oakland County.
Note: This column first appeared in the Spinal Column.