FutureStructure

Michigan Bill Would Be First to Allow Cars to Drive Without Humans

A state legislation package is aiming to clear hurdles obstructing the development of autonomous vehicles.

by / May 31, 2016
Ford tests one of its self-driving cars at MCity, a "fake city" designed to test autonomous vehicles and smart cars at the University of Michigan. Ford

Michigan, faced with a possible competition with Silicon Valley for the future of the automotive industry, is now considering legislation that would make it the first state to formally legalize driverless cars.

The legislation, Senate Bill 995, explicitly allows for autonomous vehicles capable of driving without a human operator. The bill also legalizes platooning — a technology allowing vehicles to travel very closely together — and establishes a “Council on Future Mobility” that would make policy recommendations to help the state prepare for self-driving cars.

Though other states allow the testing of driverless cars — and a Stanford University professor has written that they are probably legal when unregulated — the National Conference of State Legislators has reported than none have yet formally allowed cars without a human operator outside of research scenarios.

The move would pitch Michigan’s policy on driverless cars in the opposite direction of California’s. The California Legislature left the crafting of specific AV regulations up to the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles, which in December wrote draft language effectively prohibiting driverless vehicles. The rules would require a licensed driver to be ready to take over operation of the vehicle at any moment — meaning the vehicles could not be called on-demand without a driver inside, they could not make deliveries without people, and they likely couldn’t serve people who can’t drive, such as the blind and elderly.

With Silicon Valley companies such as Google speaking out against California’s proposed regulations, other states and cities have been rushing to woo autonomous vehicle developers. Concurrently, relationships have bloomed between California tech companies and established automotive industry powerhouses — Google has made deals with Fiat Chrysler and Ford Motor Co., while General Motors has teamed up with Lyft.

Google announced recently that it’s building an autonomous vehicle development center in a suburb outside Detroit.

Fully driverless cars still might face some hurdles at the federal level, however, since a report released in March concluded that some of the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards assume the presence of a human driver. That might make it difficult, or even impossible, for an autonomous vehicle manufacturer, to receive federal safety certifications. U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has vowed to work to make the policy environment friendlier to autonomous and connected vehicles this year.

The full package of Michigan legislation, which includes Senate bills 995-998, would also:

  • authorize fleet networks of on-demand autonomous vehicles;
  • require self-driving car makers to include systems capable of collecting pre-crash data from vehicles;
  • establish a grant-eligible autonomous vehicle research center at the defunct Willow Run factory in Ypsilanti Township; and
  • protect mechanics working on autonomous vehicles.

All four bills are in the Senate Committee on Economic Development and International Investment.