Google seeks amendment to Mich. driverless car bills

Melissa Burden
The Detroit News

Google on Tuesday said it is concerned about Michigan legislation that may prohibit companies such as the tech giant from operating autonomous ride-sharing businesses in the state. The company asked a House committee to amend language in the bills.

John Krafcik, CEO of Google’s Self-Driving Car Project, in a letter to the Michigan House Communications and Technology Committee, asked the committee to amend two self-driving bills to ensure the company could compete in the state.

“While the current bill coming out of the Senate may be suitable for traditional motor vehicle manufacturers, we are concerned that ambiguities in two of the definitions in SB 995 and SB 997 could be read to exclude other innovative AV (autonomous vehicle) technology companies such as Google from operating in the state,” Krafcik wrote in a letter released Tuesday.

The bills, as passed by the Senate last week, define autonomous vehicle manufacturers to have “distributed motor vehicles” in the U.S. before being allowed to operate an autonomous ride-sharing business in Michigan. Google says some may interpret that to exclude companies such as the tech company because it does not currently sell vehicles.

The House committee held its first hearing for the state Senate’s autonomous four-bill package on Tuesday. It heard from several companies and speakers, including the state of Michigan Transportation Director Kirk Steudle, representatives from Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Co., the Michigan Association for Justice and Michigan Environmental Council. No Google officials testified and the committee took no action.

State Sen. Mike Kowall, R-White Lake Township who introduced the bills in the Senate, said they are working to address Google's concerns and should be able to provide an update by the expected House hearing next week.

Google is partnering with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV to create a fleet of 100 self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivans. Work is being done on that project from an office in Novi.

Krafcik, in the letter, called the amendments “crucial” to “ensure that investment and deployment of AV technology is not inadvertently discouraged in the state, and that Michigan residents benefit from all manufacturers’ contributions to AV technology and safety.”

The Michigan Association for Justice, represented by board member and lawyer Stephen Sinas, said the group opposed the legislation because it does not discuss how the bills would harmonize with the current legal system and serving personal injury victims.

Kowall said a mobility council that would be created as part of the legislation would sit down with trial lawyers.

“We fully intend to work with the industry,” he said, adding any insurance law and vehicle code changes would follow the self-driving car law changes.

Some House committee members expressed concern over self-driving technology. Rep. Gretchen Driskell, D-Saline, suggested House members get a tour of some of the sites such as MCity, a self-driving car testing facility at the University of Michigan, and the American Center for Mobility, a proposed autonomous-car testing site at the former Willow Run bomber plant, to help explain to constituents how autonomous cars work.

“I want to embrace this, but it’s also very scary at the same time,” Rep. Amanda Price, R-Holland, said.

The committee is expected to hold more testimony Sept. 20 on the package of bills.

Last week, the Senate overwhelmingly approved a legislative package that would allow autonomous vehicles to operate on Michigan roads without a driver and for automakers to operate ride-hailing businesses that wouldn’t require a driver. The Republican led Senate in a series of 36-0 votes approved the sweeping legislation that lawmakers say would put Michigan at the forefront for autonomous vehicle development and ultimately sales.

Supporters are hoping to move the legislation through the House quickly as Michigan is competing with other states such as California, Nevada and Florida. The legislation has been supported by several automakers, suppliers and by Gov. Rick Snyder.

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