Autonomous car bills amended to accommodate Google

Michael Wayland, and Melissa Burden

A state House committee Tuesday is expected to review amendments and possibly vote on a package of autonomous bills that would allow automakers and tech companies such as Google Inc. to test and ultimately operate autonomous vehicles without drivers on Michigan roadways.

The House Communications and Technology Committee will meet at noon Tuesday in Lansing to discuss Senate bills 995-998. The bills have already cleared the state Senate.

“We do have a few amendments that are being worked on,” committee chair Rep. Brad Jacobsen, R-Oxford, said Monday. “I hope to have those ready to act on tomorrow.”

The main amendments involve defining what types of companies are allowed to operate under the regulations.

Google Inc. last week asked for an amendment to two of the self-driving bills to ensure the company could participate in the state. John Krafcik, CEO of Google’s Self-Driving Car Project, said in a letter to the Michigan House Communications and Technology Committee that he was concerned the legislation may prohibit companies such as the tech giant from operating autonomous ride-sharing businesses in the state.

The bills, as passed by the state Senate, 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 Google because it does not currently sell vehicles.

The new language outlines a set of standards that a company such as Google must meet to test and operate self-driving vehicles in the state. They include complying with all applicable federal motor vehicle safety standards; having operated automated motor vehicles with a test driver with the automated-driving system engaged on public roads in the United States for at least 1 million miles; and obtaining an instrument of insurance, surety bond or proof of self-insurance in the amount of at least $10 million.

Google has driven nearly 2 million miles in autonomous mode in its fleet of self-driving vehicles.

Jacobsen said he believes the amendments that clarify how a “manufacturer” is defined will satisfy Google’s concerns and worries from companies such as Uber. He hopes the legislation will be voted out of committee Tuesday but said it’s possible another meeting could be held Thursday or next week.

“I think it’s imperative for the state of Michigan that we get this moving along and help our automakers and the technology folks who are working on the autonomous vehicle platforms,” he said in a telephone interview.

Jacobsen said he does not foresee any “no” votes on the bills.

“I think everyone is excited about having this new technology and making sure Michigan is on the forefront of it,” he said.

Google did not immediately comment on the changes.

Uber vice president of Global Vehicle Programs Sherif Marakby on Monday said the Silicon Valley-based ride-hailing company has been working with state officials on the regulations. He said metro Detroit could be a location for a future self-driving vehicle fleet. But he added that decision depends on what happens with the proposed legislation.

“Positive legislation that allows technology companies like Uber to operate in Michigan will only help that,” he said at the SAE Convergence conference in Novi. “We’re very much working with the state on that. We hope it’s going to be a positive result.”

Uber launched 20 or so self-driving Ford Fusions in Pittsburgh. The company plans to grow that fleet to 100 by Christmas. However Uber, unlike Google, does not plan to produce vehicles, Marakby said.

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

Earlier this month, the Senate unanimously 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.

Michigan is competing with states such as California, Nevada and Florida for self-driving vehicle investment, so supporters hope to move the bills through the House quickly. The legislation has been supported by several automakers, suppliers and by Gov. Rick Snyder.

Ford Vice President of Research and Advanced Engineering Ken Washington said the Dearborn-based automaker supports the legislation. He said the legislation “not necessarily” favors traditional automakers over tech companies.

“We’re really happy about the recent legislation that passed the Senate in Michigan,” he told The Detroit News Wednesday morning. “We’re supportive of that because it’s going to allow us to test in Michigan ultimately one day without a driver on public roads. We know we’re going to need to do something like that.”

Ford announced last week that it will begin shuttling employees around its Dearborn campus in self-driving cars in 2018, followed by its first self-driving public implementation in 2021.

General Motors Co. in January announced it invested $500 million in Lyft Inc. — Uber’s largest rival. The partnership includes producing a fleet of autonomous Chevrolet Bolts and a network of U.S. hubs where the ride-hailing service’s drivers can rent GM vehicles.