(TNS) -- The Michigan Senate unanimously passed a package of four bills Wednesday aimed at making Michigan a research center for testing of autonomous vehicles.
Lawmakers said the bills would put Michigan at the forefront of autonomous vehicle research and likened the speedy action on the bills to the U.S. race to become the first to land on the moon.
"I see this as the equivalent to the race to space. This is going to benefit our families. It’s going to make our cars safer," said Sen. Ken Horn, R-Frankenmuth. "Continuing the analogy of the race to the moon, we can think of this as one small step for Lansing, one giant leap for mankind."
But Bryant Walker Smith, a professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law who has studied the legal impact of self-driving cars, said that some of the bills could protect automakers from ride-sharing competition from companies such as Google, Apple or other technology developers.
Specifically, Senate bills 995 and 996 expressly authorize "on-demand automated motor vehicle networks" that involve a recognized motor vehicle manufacturer in some capacity. As originally drafted, only these manufacturers would have been eligible to "participate" in those networks, Smith said.
In other words, General Motors could run an "on-demand automated motor vehicle network" while Google and Uber could not.
"The original version read like it was written by or for an auto manufacturer," Smith said. "Traditionally, making cars has largely been limited to really big companies that have a lot of resources and incentives to be safe. What automated driving presents is a return to the day when anyone can create a new technology in their garage and compete with existing modes of transportation."
Smith also cited language in Senate Bill 927 that appears to target hackers who want to interfere with the functioning and navigation of autonomous cars.
Specifically, it would impose criminal sanctions of up to life imprisonment for anyone who "intentionally access(es) or cause(s) access to be made to an electronic system of a motor vehicle to willfully ... alter ... the motor vehicle."
"A literal interpretation would make criminals out of manufacturers that send over-the-air updates to their vehicles," Smith said. "Or of vehicle owners who accept such updates, even repair shops that run diagnostics checks while fixing vehicles."
Such unintended consequences are hard to see when a state is trying to attract more investment in an exciting new technology.
"Now we’re embarking on intelligence that’s computer driven and we’re going to be relying on that in the future to keep Michigan as the center of it," said state Sen. Mike Kowall, R-White Lake, the sponsor of some of the bills, adding that more work will need to be done in the Legislature to cover many more issues, such as how the vehicles will be insured.
The bills approve testing of the new technology on 122 miles of roads in the state and opens the way for the American Center for Mobility to redevelop the old Willow Run airport for autonomous vehicle testing and research.
"A lot of folks in my community are excited to get back to work," said Sen. Rebekah Warren, D-Ann Arbor, whose district includes the Willow Run site. "We have to make sure we keep Michigan on the cutting edge of this technology now and into the future."
Besides Michigan, other states, including Florida, Nevada, Arizona and California, are positioning themselves as hubs for the research and development of self-driving vehicles. Uber and Carnegie Mellon University have made Pittsburgh another key venue for autonomous mobility.
Much of the work is being done by automakers, ride-sharing and technology companies such as Google, Uber, Lyft and Apple.
A year ago, Mcity, a 32-acre simulated city and test facility, opened on the University of Michigan's North Campus, where automakers, suppliers and telecommunications companies are testing autonomous vehicle systems in a controlled environment.
Toyota, along with General Motors, Ford, Nissan and Honda, is a founding partner in U-M's Mobility Transformation Center, which oversees Mcity.
In July, the Michigan Economic Development Corp. approved the $1.2-million purchase of 311 acres in Ypsilanti for the American Center for Mobility on the site of the former World War II Willow Run bomber plant. The center will be used to test vehicles that can talk to each other and drive on their own.
In August, the Toyota Research Institute announced a grant of $22 million to advance research on artificial intelligence, robotics and autonomous driving at the University of Michigan. The money will be spent over four years, and the work will be directed by robotics professors Ryan Eustice and Ed Olson, who will retain their part-time faculty positions.
The bills — SB 995-998 — now move to the House for consideration. Speaker of the House Kevin Cotter, R-Mt. Pleasant, said he's anxious to get to work on the bills.
"It sounds very appealing but we want to spend some more time with that package. I think we can move that yet this year," he said. "It’s something that would be a good step in Michigan and allow the state to be out front. This could be a real game-changer in Michigan."
©2016 the Detroit Free Press Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.