Speaking at the Automotive News World Congress in Detroit, key original iPod team member and Nest founder Tony Fadell explained why Detroit is such an ideal place to test autonomous vehicles. He points out (via Katie Burke on Twitter) that Detroit has two key ingredients: a low population, and a lot of existing city infrastructure.
Detroit’s population is currently around 680,000, which is down considerably from over 1 million at the beginning of the 1990s, and a peak population of around 1.8 million according to the 1950 U.S. census. That change means that Detroit has the city infrastructure of an urban area with at least twice its population density – meaning there’s plenty of city streets, traffic lights and intersections to deal with, but fewer pedestrians to also manage at the same time.
Minimizing the unpredictable human variable while also maximizing the similarity with other city settings at an early stage of testing is key; it’s why other efforts like the University of Michigan Mcity testing facility were created, to simulate road conditions in a controlled test environment.
Michigan also recently passed laws that make it among the most amenable regulatory environments in the U.S. for testing autonomous vehicles, including a path towards allowing them on public roads without drivers behind the wheel. And Detroit’s true four-season climate means testing can take place in a wide range of weather conditions, for perspective on system performance that will apply in a broader percentage of teh world.
Fadell also discussed how he’s been investing in more automotive companies lately. After he departed Nest, Fadell co-founded Actev Motors, maker of a fast electric go-kart – but the founder said at the AN World Congress that he’s also investing in tech like a radar-based LiDAR alternative.