Spinal Column: Autonomous vehicles will strengthen the economy and make us safer

Sen. Mike Kowall

Sen. Mike Kowall

By Sen. Mike Kowall
15th Senate District

The Michigan economy, for much of our history, has been inextricably linked to the automobile industry. The industry has experienced periods of both incredible growth and terrible decline over the past hundred-plus years.

Now is an exciting time in Michigan for the automobile industry and for automobile consumers as well (this second category represents most adults in the state): Autonomous vehicle technology continues to develop, and we are at the dawn of this vital new industry.

In May, Google announced that the company will be opening a self-driving test center in Novi. This is wonderful news for Oakland County and, indeed, for all of Michigan. I have worked with Google and other automakers and will continue to do so to ensure that Michigan remains the auto capital of the world now and far into the future.

In 2013, I sponsored two bills that became the current autonomous vehicles law in Michigan, which took effect in March 2014. Unfortunately, this current law is becoming more outdated day by day as technology advances and other states seek the new automotive industry for themselves.

Michigan’s dominance in auto research and development is under attack from several states and countries who desire to supplant our leadership in transportation. We can’t let that happen.

That is why I was the lead sponsor of a package of bills introduced in the state Senate the same week Google made their announcement. Senate Bills 995 – 998 would update the law on autonomous vehicles to provide safer transportation, better mobility and a stronger economy.

The legislation would reduce barriers to further research and “real world” testing of autonomous vehicles to move safer technology into the marketplace more quickly.

Advances in autonomous technology will allow Michigan drivers and their passengers to be safer on the road. Ninety-four percent of traffic accidents are caused by human error. Autonomous vehicles will reduce such errors and decrease the number of traffic deaths annually in the U.S.

In addition, a robust and free environment for testing and development will ensure the Michigan economy benefits from this new technology.

Among other things, SBs 995 – 998 would:
•    Allow open operation of autonomous vehicles beyond restricted testing to allow real-world development for all conditions;
•    Authorize vehicle platoons and on-demand automated fleet networks for efficiency in delivery and transportation and create the Michigan Council on Future Mobility to keep Michigan at the forefront of mobility developments;
•    Establish critical standards for on-demand vehicle networks to satisfy, including requirements for data collection and crash information that would help companies and transportation researchers evaluate how these networks work and what improvements may be needed;
•    Authorize the creation of the American Center for Mobility at the old Willow Run factory site (the center is expected to assume a vital role in research and education on autonomous vehicle technology); and
•    Extend the liability protection in current law, which shields manufacturers from liability when an unauthorized person attempts to modify autonomous technology, to a licensed mechanic who follows the manufacturer specifications in working on the technology.

Michigan has been at the forefront of automobile manufacture and production for much of the industry’s history. As we enter the age of the autonomous vehicle, I will do everything I can to help ensure we remain the leader of this critical sector of the industry as well.

This column first appeared in the Spinal Column newsweekly. Senator Mike Kowall, R-White Lake, is the Michigan Senate majority floor leader. He serves the residents of the 15th Senate District, representing western Oakland County.