Michigan Moves To Lead Driverless Car Testing

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Sweeping legislation was introduced Wednesday in the state Senate that aims to make Michigan the nation’s leader in autonomous vehicle testing by allowing manufacturers to produce and sell self-driving cars here and clearing the way for their use on state roadways.

Sen. Mike Kowall, R-White Lake Township, introduced “broad” legislation that would allow self-driving cars to be operated on any of Michigan’s 122,000 miles of roads in the state and would eliminate the need for a driver to be behind the wheel while it’s operating.

It also would allow for on-demand autonomous vehicle networks operated by manufacturers — such as a fleet of self-driving Chevrolet Bolt EVs that General Motors Co. is developing with ride-hailing company Lyft Inc. — to pick up passengers.

The bills were introduced the same day Google announced it will open a 53,000-square-foot self-driving car development center in Novi, Kowall’s district. He said the timing was “an absolute coincidence.” “I had not been informed officially about anything with Google,” he said. “They played their cards pretty close to their vest.”

Kowall in an interview said the legislation is intended to open Michigan roadways to any company. The legislation would update Michigan law that passed the legislature in 2013 and took effect in March 2014 that allows for autonomous vehicle testing on state roads.

“It’s an entire mobility program encouraging anybody and everybody that’s interested in auto vehicles to come to Michigan and do their research and development, and put it to practical uses,” he said.

State Transportation Director Kirk Steudle called the package of four bills “probably the most far reaching of any legislation in any state and maybe viewed as a national model.” He and Kowall said the bills have state and automotive company support. Steudle said the laws would allow carmakers to produce and sell self-driving cars here.

“We’re the center of mobility and we’re not going to take that for granted,” Steudle said. “We’re going to continue to push that the way mobility gets framed in the future gets developed in Michigan.”

A package of bills was referred Wednesday to the Senate Economic Development and International Investment Committee.

Change in law

Michigan law currently requires an operator be in a self-driving car who could take over if necessary. The proposed law would allow the automated driving system to operate as the driver.

Michigan is one of seven states and Washington, D.C., that have enacted laws for testing autonomous cars, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

State laws allow for varying levels of testing and deployment. For example, Florida law — enacted in April — eliminates the need for a driver to be present and eliminates the requirement that autonomous vehicle operation be for testing purposes.

Kowall hopes the bill is signed into law by September. He said the legislation is backed by Gov. Rick Snyder and many other legislators.

“We have a tremendous amount of support,” he said. “My colleagues on both sides of the aisle are interested in this because of the potential job creation for their districts.”

Snyder as of late Wednesday had not reviewed the bill, but supports it in concept, Snyder press secretary Anna Heaton said.

“Michigan has always been the leader in automotive manufacturing,” she said. “The governor has been trying to change the thinking from it being an auto and manufacturing industry to being a mobility industry. We have to get ahead of that before everyone else does.”

Heaton said there are safety concerns that Snyder hopes are worked out in the legislative process “to protect everyone on the road.”

Automakers such as GM and Tesla Motors Inc. as well as technology companies such as Uber Technologies Inc. and Google have weighed in and provided input on the legislation, Kowall said.

‘Move forward’

The legislation would allow for mobility research facilities such as the American Center for Mobility, a 300-acre autonomous car test site at the former Willow Run bomber plant.

“Michigan’s move forward here is really imperative and will cement Michigan in the lead position for these vehicles to be developed… and ultimately released for operation,” John Maddox, CEO of the center, said.

The legislation would streamline the timeline for testing semi-truck platoons in which a lead semi-truck truck would control braking and acceleration of other trucks immediately behind the first. And it includes the creation of a council on future mobility that would recommend changes in state policy to “ensure this state continues to be the world leader in autonomous, driverless and connected vehicle technology.”

James Fackler, an assistant administrator with the Michigan Secretary of State, said the proposed law could help ease the public’s apprehension with self-driving cars: “Sometimes you need to see something to understand what it is.”

This week, a University of Michigan study found the public isn’t completely sold on autonomous vehicles. Less than 20 percent of respondents in a poll said they would prefer to ride in a fully self-driving car. Most wanted to retain full control while driving.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is expected this summer to release a draft of guidelines on the self-driving technology that would serve as a framework for states. How quickly self-driving vehicles hit the market isn’t known, but carmakers and tech companies have been quickening development of features that could eliminate crashes and save lives.

John Simpson, privacy project director at the Santa Monica, California-based Consumer Watchdog group, cautioned that Michigan’s law should ensure a driver can take control of a self-driving auto if it runs into problems. He pointed to a recently proposed California law that would require the presence of a licensed driver in an autonomous vehicle who could take control.

“That’s the thing we think is necessary because the technology is just not ready yet to go out in into the streets without the ability to intervene,” Simpson added. “While it may be the case down the road, meaning decades, that the technology may be able to work, but we’re not there.”

All three of Detroit’s automakers said they support Michigan’s proposed legislation.

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(313) 222-2319

Staff writer Keith Laing contributed.

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