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Michigan Passes New Laws Permitting Driverless Vehicles

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder has cleared the way for driverless vehicles to operate on state roads, but the lack of clarity has dampened the laws' reception.

Signing four related bills, Snyder said the laws that place Michigan in the vanguard of automotive technology.

“Michigan put the world on wheels and now we are leading the way in transforming the auto industry,” Snyder said in a press release, adding that by passing the bills Michigan will “continue as the leader the rest of the world sees as its biggest competition.”

The new laws permit the operation of cars without traditional controls like steering wheels on public roads, and once the technology has been tested and certification granted,  manufacturers will be allowed to market and sell the cars to consumers.  

“Overall, Michigan's leadership is making a clear statement that the state is willing to adopt laws and regulations to support the next great phase of automotive technology in the U.S.,” said Terry Clower, director of the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University. “The underlying message is that as the move towards automation in vehicle operation continues, related research and business development opportunities will find a welcoming home in Michigan.”

The language in one of the bills - SB 995 - is raising legal concerns because it defines the vehicle as the operator when in autonomous mode, not the person riding in the vehicle.

“This is the beginning of addressing key regulatory and liability issues that need to be solved before widespread use of autonomous vehicles can be practical,” Clower said.

Bryant Walker Smith, an assistant professor in the School of Law and the School of Engineering at the University of South Carolina, agreed, saying "the four bills that passed are still a mess.”

“The language of SB 995 is so unclear that I can't even say what it actually does,” Smith said.

SB 995 allows autonomous vehicles to be operated on Michigan roads where previously only testing of such vehicles by manufacturers was permitted. It also ensures that all safety requirements pertaining to the testing of autonomous vehicles apply to autonomous vehicle operation.

The bill also allows for automated vehicle platooning -- a method of electronically coordinating the speeds of autonomous vehicles so they travel closer together to increase the capacity of roads – an aspect Clower praised.

“Some have said the capacity of an urban highway could effectively increase by one-third. This improves traffic flows, which lowers total transportation costs for commuters and commercial drivers,” he said. “It also reduces the total amount of lane-miles we need for a given level of traffic, which reduces infrastructure costs (like) construction, maintenance (and) operations.”

In addition, SB 995 paves the way for on-demand autonomous vehicle networks and creates the Michigan Council on Future Mobility to make recommendations on statewide policy the governor and legislative leaders.  

“On-demand autonomous systems could greatly enhance the economic efficiency of spending on vehicles,” Clower said. “Cars are about the least utilized large asset in any household.  We pay what can be a lot of money for an asset that gets used a few hours per day, on average.”

Instead of individuals owning their own vehicles, many people will find it cheaper to use autonomous cars for on-demand transportation - a driverless Uber. “This could free up spending on cars for other goods and services, or even improved retirement savings,” Clower said.

Clower said that the shift to self-driving vehicles should also reduce accidents. 

“This would still be a net benefit even if we include the loss of income for personal injury lawyers.  Also, the cost of automobile insurance should go down dramatically, which is a blessing to any household with teenagers with licenses,” Clower said.

In September, the Obama administration released guidelines for autonomous vehicles and praised the emerging technology.

“Automated vehicles could change (people’s) lives,” President Obama wrote in an op-ed column. “Safer, more accessible driving. Less congested, less polluted roads. That’s what harnessing technology for good can look like. But we have to get it right.”

Getting it right is a concern not only President Obama has.

In a letter to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration last month, Apple Inc. expressed excitement about the concept and technology behind automated transportation, but called for the administration to clarify who is liable for problems that occur when cars drive themselves, and to ensure the maintenance of users’ privacy, cybersecurity and physical safety.

Clower said another drawback of automated transportation could potentially be the de-skilling of the population.

“If you become used to the car driving itself, what happens if conditions require the human factor -- such as disaster-level weather events, emergency transport (like) having a baby when an on-demand car is not available, and other times when a skilled and practiced driver needs to be in command of the vehicle?”

Nonetheless, the benefits of automated transportation could potentially build over time, and would require that a fairly large portion cars on roads operate as autonomous vehicles to experience full benefit.

Smith said he expects automated driving development and regulation in 2017 to become much more concrete, particularly because an increasing number of people in the transportation field are pushing for specific pilot projects that will start to showcase high automation under limited conditions.

“I don't know what happens federally in 2017,” Smith said. “Many career staff in the (Department of Transportation) are excited about and committed to automation and connectivity, but so much of this hangs on political priorities.”