Michigan will soon become the fourth state in the country to allow and regulate the testing of self-driving vehicles.
State lawmakers on Thursday gave final approval to Senate Bill 169, a long-discussed proposal that will give automakers and suppliers the legal authority to test autonomous vehicles on Michigan roads. Gov. Rick Snyder called for the legislation last January in his 2013 State of the State Address.
"It's changing history in the automotive industry. It's as dramatic as having a woman run General Motors," sponsoring Sen. Mike Kowall (R-White Lake) said Tuesday, referencing the automaker's new CEO, Mary Barra. "The industry is changing. The world is changing. And we want to be heading the pack here. We don't want to be sitting in the back seat."
Automakers, including Detroit's Big Three and Toyota, support the legislation and are already testing self-driving vehicles here. Many cars already on the road include autonomous technologies, such as adaptive cruise control, self-parking and crash avoidance systems.
Kowall's bill also will allow suppliers and "upfitters" to test self-driving vehicles on Michigan roads, provided there is a human inside, and protect original manufacturers from civil liability for damages caused by modified vehicles. Continental, a German company with its U.S. headquarters in Auburn Hills, has tested its autonomous tech on Volkswagens in Nevada.
Google, the California-based technology giant that is developing its own self-driving cars, worked with Kowall's office during drafting of the bill but ended up opposing the final product because it will enact a prohibition on autonomous vehicle operation outside of testing.
The legislation would "make Michigan the most restrictive of all states that have passed bills on AVs," Google told lawmakers last week. Approving testing but not operation would "put Michigan in the awkward position of having to play catch up to the other states that have already embraced the future of where advancements in automobile technology are ultimately headed."
Florida, California and Nevada have enacted broader laws anticipating future autonomous vehicle adoption. Kowall said Michigan is taking a different approach but has the same goal. He plans to begin work on additional legislation for future operations as soon as the governor signs the testing bill.
Passenger and commercial use of self-driving vehicles presents a number of legal questions and may impact "at least 100 places" in the Michigan Vehicle Code, according to Kowall. For instance, is someone with a .08 blood-alcohol level drunk driving if their car is actually driving itself?
Kowall expects he and his colleagues will work on a large package of bills to address operations questions, but he said it was important to finish the testing measure before the North American International Auto Show returns to Detroit next month.
"We're going to have people from all over the world here, and the message we're trying to send is that we're open for business," said Kowall. "We have the research. We have the technology, and we have the people. That's the most important part here — we have the engineers that can bring this to fruition."