Michigan wants to be the first state to move beyond testing self-driving cars to allowing them to be sold and operated on its roads.
Although driverless cars are perhaps years away, a package of bipartisan bills includes one that would update 2013 laws allowing for the operation of autonomous cars on public roads without anyone at the wheel. That would end the previous human operator requirement.
The state bills would also allow for tight “platoons” of smart commercial trucks that could travel in unison at coordinated speeds. It would also allow automakers to run networks of on-demand self-driving vehicles. That state law would help create a facility to test autonomous and wirelessly connected cars at highway speeds at the site of a defunct GM plant that once churned out World War II bombers.
Lawmakers, automaker executives, and regulators say the technology is progressing so rapidly that Michigan must stay ahead of the curve or risk losing automotive research and development to other states. Nevada was the first state to authorize self-driving vehicles in 2011, and California, Michigan, Florida, North Dakota, Tennessee, and Utah followed. Arizona’s governor has issued an executive order allowing for testing self-driving cars.
”It’s coming. It’s coming fast,” Michigan Department of Transportation Director Kirk Steudle said of the merging of Silicon Valley and Motor City technology. “The technology is at a point where it will be incorporated into something that is mass-produced.”
The state legislature is recognizing the test projects run in the state, and the significant alliances that been struck in recent months. Google, which is opening a self-driving test center in the Detroit suburb of Novi, is partnering with Fiat Chrysler to test software in 100 Chrysler Pacifica minivans. In January, General Motors invested $500 million in ride-hailing company Lyft and bought a startup that makes autonomous-vehicle software. Toyota last week announced an investment in Lyft’s rival, Uber.
Michigan’s Department of Transportation worked with legislators to develop the bills, which also have support from the state’s economic development officials. Gov. Rick Snyder is “very supportive” of the concept, a spokesman said.
“We’re working with the industry and MDOT so that once these vehicles are on the road you can rest assured that they are safe,” said the lead sponsor, Republican Sen. Mike Kowall. “I see the autonomous vehicles being tested on the road every day. It’s weird. But it’s what’s going to move the auto industry into the 24th and 25th century.”
Kowall expects a Senate panel to begin considering the bills this summer.
Consumer Watchdog, a California-based advocacy group, is in agreement with California’s Department of Motor Vehicles over human drivers take over control of the car in the event of an emergency. The watchdog group’s president Jamie Court criticized the Michigan legislation and said a “line needs to be drawn” to ensure that a human driver can take control if something goes wrong.