Michigan’s Autonomous Car Laws Embrace a Driverless Future

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You can hardly blame Michigan for trying to scarf down its piece of pie before someone swipes it off their plate. The Wolverine State just became one of the first in the country to formally give the thumbs-up to autonomous cars on public roads, with no driver in the front seat.

Friday, Governor Rick Snyder put his signature on bills permitting automakers to operate networks of self-driving taxis in the state.1

The legislation reverses a 2013 law that required autonomous vehicles to have a backup driver aboard, and comes as the home teams move toward delivering the tech for real. Ford has pledged to deliver fleets of fully autonomous cars, without a steering wheel or pedals, by 2021. GM has partnered with ride-hailing tech company Lyft to create a fleet of electric self-driving taxis in the next five years or so.

“As near as I can tell from the language and the context, what’s going on is a specific effort to implement a specific regime for a specific company,” says Bryant Walker Smith, a legal scholar with the University of South Carolina School of Law who studies self-driving vehicles.

To date, five states—California, Nevada, Tennessee, Florida, and Michigan—and the District of Columbia have passed laws dealing with autonomous driving. As you’d expect, these laws aren’t exactly identical. Rather, the 50 states are looking more like 50 mini-policy labs, where lawmakers, government officials, academics, and, yes, the big company players shape regulations to fit their specific needs.

So you get why Detroit is angling to keep Silicon Valley’s hands off its Motor City title. “The fact of the matter is 75 percent of all the companies that are doing research and development in this space are in southeast Michigan,” says Kirk Steudle, the director of the state’s Department of Transportation. The new laws encourage them to stay put.

The Self-Driving Patchwork

As future-friendly as these rules are, not everyone’s thrilled. “States play an important role in road safety, such as licensing and registration, but the federal government should provide the national framework to prevent a patchwork of state laws and regulations,” David Strickland, counsel for Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, which represents Ford, Google, Lyft, Uber, and Volvo, said in a statement.

Indeed, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration has created model legislation for governing autonomy, in a bid to get each state on the same page. The industry likes the idea, because the idea of making 50 variations of a car to match 50 sets of laws promises to be a nightmare.

Even today, you can see the problems: When an autonomous Audi prototype crossed from California into Nevada in January 2015, the engineers had to pull over at the border and screw on the special license plate the Silver State requires. What’s inconvenient on a demo ride could prove to be a major pain in the trunk when the tech reaches the masses. (Although lobbyists would certainly make bank trying to convince hundreds of lawmakers all over the country that their way is the best way.)

But Smith, the AV researcher, says the every-state-for-itself approach has some advantages. “There’s opportunity for experimentation, for different entities to take different approaches toward automated driving and proceed state by state,” he says. “We don’t have the best solution yet, and states are going to contribute to this dialogue.” Michigan can hype its automakers. Pennsylvania, now working on regulations, may just favor Uber, which is running an autonomous taxi pilot in Pittsburgh. Other states looking to join the fun could learn from those going first.

Watch This Space

In the meantime, however, expect to see Michigan’s shiny new rules get some refinement. Smith says the legislation is muddled, inconsistently using terms like “operation,” “operator,” and “driver.” Just words, to be sure, but the kind of words that determine liability in court cases—and who’s at fault when something inevitably goes wrong. (One piece of legislation does make the manufacturer liable for “incidents in which the automated driving system is at fault,” but only when it’s operating the vehicle as part of an on-demand network.)

It’s not clear if the non-automakers in this space have the right to operate a fleet of self-driving taxis in the mitten-shaped state all on their own. In September, Google’s self-driving project wrote to the Michigan House Communications and Technology Committee asking whether its self-driving can operate on its public roads. The final bill updates the language to clarify that technology companies can definitely take to the roads in Michigan, but all but requires “automobile manufacturers” to be part of the efforts. A company like Google would either have to link up with a vehicle manufacturer, purchase manufacturers’ federal government-approved vehicles, or build its own cars that meet federal safety standards to really get in on the action. (Luckily, Google has already got a thing going with Fiat Chrysler.)

The state, at least, seems to believe the law is sufficiently friendly to all. “Michigan is open for business for everyone who wants to come here to work,” says Steudle, the MDOT director. “We welcome any company to come on in and operate on the roads. Show us what you got.”

Basically: Stay tuned.

1Post updated Friday December 9 at 20:05 EST to clarify details of Michigan’s new legislation.

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