Robots are Coming!
Phil Callihan on the autonomous car
"In ten years, you won't even see it, because it'll be so baked into the environment."
That's Phil Callihan, spokesperson for the Robotics Technology Consortium and executive director of the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences, talking at his usual level of barely restrained excitement about autonomous vehicles--cars and trucks that can drive themselves. "Five years from now, you'll see some autonomous vehicles on the road," he predicts. "But in ten years, when cargo is transported at night to avoid rush hours, you'll wonder where all the trucks went."
With his boyish looks and spiky hair, Callihan's appearance matches his enthusiasm. Though his U-M degree is in political science and history, "I worked my way through the university as an IT guy. The IT wave hit just as I was going through school, and that experience really gave me a footing in the industry. I went right from the university to NCMS."
The National Center for Manufacturing Sciences is a nonprofit founded in 1986 "to help stave off foreign competition in the machine-tool industry," Callihan says. It now has 300 corporate members, representing "the entire breadth of American manufacturing." Where do robots fit in? "Robots fit in great," Callihan says with delight. "And it started with the DOD.
"The Department of Defense has tons of what they call 'aging weapons systems,' where they still use the equipment but the manufacturer has gone out of business for the parts. We're talking helicopters, the F-15, the M-1 tank. And while we were working with the DOD to help them solve their maintenance problems, the DOD said, 'Can you help us with robotics?' How cool is that!
"The Robotics Technology Consortium was founded in 2008 because we have a lot of Michigan companies doing great stuff on robotics: Soar Technologies, Cybernet Systems, both here in Ann Arbor, and FANUC Robotics. It all came out of the Detroit auto industry's need for more automation, for higher accuracy and lower labor costs."
As for autonomous vehicles, "the
technology is there now," Callihan says. "The questions are how much does it cost and what are the liabilities? Recent surveys show 20 percent of the population wants autonomous vehicles, and that 20 percent overlaps with the luxury car market. It's started already, but now it's called 'driver assisted.' In the next three or four years, Cadillac has 'super cruise control' coming, which will help you stay in your lane."
Callihan's already looking toward the next stage--he wants the state to allow testing of fully autonomous vehicles. "Nevada has already created a legal framework, and California and Florida are getting there, but there's been no efforts here in Michigan. There are companies that could do the work, but we need to have laws passed to make it legal. Now it's a gray area, so we're sending cars to Nevada to be worked on--and what sense does that make? We're Michigan!"
Callihan himself, however, isn't altogether looking forward to the autonomous vehicle. "I've got a red '94 Mustang--red because Mustangs are red. I got it when I graduated from the university, and it's only got 60,000 miles on it because I put it away for winter. And I want to drive that car until I die!"
[Originally published in October, 2012.]