I had two significant experiences with self-driving vehicles on June 26 in the Detroit area that brought me closer to trusting these robot rides.
In the morning I attended the May Mobility launch of its fleet of six-passenger electric vehicles designed to carry property management company Bedrock’s employees to work in a short loop in downtown Detroit.
The startup’s cute green-and-white vehicles are designed to ease traffic congestion and put an end to worries about where to park. But they also help make people comfortable with turning over the wheel.
The May Mobility vehicles, built under contract by auto supplier Magna, lack a steering wheel and pedals. Instead, a “fleet attendant” sits in the “driver’s seat,” which has a bar with buttons to start and stop if a human needs to take control. The rear riders sit facing each other in a lounge-style setup that encourages conversation among strangers.
The only things missing are cupholders and music, but Alisyn Malek, May Mobility’s chief operating officer, told me they are working on those additions.
The vehicles were launched in the shadow of Detroit’s Renaissance Center, buildings that feature the imposing General Motors’ logo. While the public can’t use the May Mobility fleet yet, you get the feeling that transportation is rapidly changing in the Motor City.
The ride along Congress, Monroe and other landmark Detroit streets was stress-free and pleasant, and made the city feel more livable.
Since my husband and I write about cars, I returned home to find a 2018 Cadillac CT6 Platinum AWD parked in my driveway, loaned to us by GM for a weeklong test drive. The $89,290 CT6 featured Super Cruise, a semi-automated system with a driver attention feature that’s part of a luxury-and-convenience package.
After dinner, we took the CT6 on a 45-minute drive to visit my son and his family in a nearby suburb of Detroit. On the way, we experienced hands-free and foot-free driving for most of the route, thanks to the impressive Super Cruise system.
When the car is on the freeway and centered in the highway lane, you press a button on the steering wheel and the Super Cruise system takes over. A lighted green strip along the top of the steering wheel lets you know that the system is working. A camera on the steering wheel hub is aimed at the driver’s face to make sure he or she is paying attention. If you need to retake control of the car, the lighted strip turns red and the seat bottom shakes to alert you.
The sensation of turning over control of the car is disconcerting for the first few miles, but then you quickly realize what a miracle you are experiencing. I had a lump in my throat along M-14 between Ann Arbor and Livonia as my feet were off the pedals and my hands were in my lap.
I couldn’t help thinking of my father, a 94-year-old retired Detroit vice cop who is suffering from macular degeneration, an eye condition that cuts down on his vision and limits his driving ability. A self-driving car would give him back the freedom to go wherever he wanted to go. Almost every week, he asks me, “when are they coming,” meaning self-driving cars.
A world of self-driving cars could dramatically reduce traffic deaths and injuries, too. As we experimented with the CT6 and Super Cruise, we passed a digital billboard on M-14 that updates the number of people killed on Michigan roads in real time. The Michigan State Police report that 1,028 people were killed in traffic accidents here last year and that 78,394 were injured. Imagine a world where there are zero traffic fatalities. I could behind the wheel of that CT6.
After those two experiences, my take on self-driving cars is this: I can’t wait to give up the steering wheel.