LANSING, MI — Michigan is a leader in the automotive industry of today, and new legislation seeks make the state a leader in the automotive industry of tomorrow.
Senate Bill 169, which passed through the transportation committee today in a unanimous and bipartisan vote, would make Michigan the fourth state in the country to allow vehicle manufacturers and suppliers to test self-driving vehicles on public roads.
"It's moving the automobile business into the next century, and I'm really happy to be a part of it," said Sen. Mike Kowall, R-White Lake, who introduced the bill and tweaked it in consultation with various automakers and technology companies. "It's really exciting."
The legislation would allow manufacturers and third-party "upfitters" to test autonomous vehicles on Michigan roads, provided there is a human operator who can assume control if necessary. It would prohibit the general public from driving in automatic mode until the federal government has set safety standards for autonomous vehicles.
Three other states — Florida, California and Nevada — already have similar bills on the books, leading companies around the country to conduct testing there. By allowing testing in Michigan, Kowall hopes to save local companies money and encourage others to move here.
"Number one, it's going to mean a lot of research and development jobs, and it's going to mean a lot of companies producing these types of devices are ultimately going to want to move here and be close to the automobile industry," he said.
Ford, General Motors, Chrysler and Toyota each have testified in support of autonomous vehicle legislation, along with "upfitters" such as Google and Contintental, a German-based company with U.S. headquarters in Auburn Hills that recently retrofitted a Volkswagen Passat with autonomous technology and tested it in Nevada.
While self-driving vehicles may sound like science fiction, they are a quickly approaching reality. A spokeswoman for Google, which has logged more than 400,000 miles in autonomous vehicles in California, recently told committee members that the technology is "only years away, not decades away" from the marketplace.
Many automakers already outfit their new vehicles with semi-autonomous technology, such as crash-avoidance systems and adaptive cruise control, which could set the stage for the self-driving cars of tomorrow.
"I think you will see a convergence of technologies in the future that will help facilitate and foster introduction of autonomous vehicles in the future," Robert Strassburger of the Alliance for Automobile Manufacturers said today during testimony. "We're not there yet, but we appreciate the work that you're doing to look at the regulatory environment now to make sure there are no impediments or roadblocks to innovation."
Gov. Rick Snyder, during his recent State of the State Address, discussed the need autonomous driving legislation and urged lawmakers to work quickly in order to ensure that Michigan retains its claim as the "automotive capitol of the world."
After tweaking the bill and seeing it pass through committee, Kowall expects it to cruise through the Senate and House before reaching the governor's desk — hopefully, he said, by the end of the month.