Autonomous cars bills may zoom for speedy House vote

Michael Gerstein
The Detroit News

Lansing — A state House committee approved new versions of legislation that would pave the way for companies to operate autonomous cars on Michigan roads.

Now tech companies including Google may be one step closer to operating ride-hailing fleets of driverless cars on the state’s public roads after lawmakers on the House Communications and Technology Committee sent the legislation to the House floor in a 13-0 vote on Tuesday.

The Republican committee chairman Rep. Bradford Jacobsen of Oxford said after a Tuesday hearing that the House can now vote on the bills as soon as Wednesday.

The Senate previously approved different versions of the legislation earlier in September.

While it’s up to the Speaker of the House Kevin Cotter, R-Mt. Pleasant, when the full House votes on the legislation, Jacobsen said he “would not be surprised” if Republican leaders in the House hold a vote Wednesday or Thursday.

After that, the Senate would still need to hold a concurrence vote on the new versions of the legislation which Gov. Rick Snyder would also need to approve.

“As technology is changing every day, we need to be on top of it. And I think this is one of the key things we need to do,” Jacobsen said after the hearing. “We want to be on the forefront of new technology and keep Michigan … as the auto capital of the world.”

Google Inc. is in part responsible for the latest iteration. It came to lawmakers with concerns that the original language in the bills would prevent the company from operating autonomous vehicles in Michigan, which Jacobsen said was not lawmakers’ intent.

The company last week asked to alter two of the bills. 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 from operating autonomous ride-hailing businesses in the state.

The substitute versions of the legislation changed some technical language to make sure other companies like Google are allowed to operate autonomous vehicles under the regulatory framework sketched out in the four-bill package.

The former versions defined autonomous vehicle manufacturers to have “distributed motor vehicles” in such a way that could have excluded companies such as Google because it does not currently sell vehicles.

The legislation outlines a set of standards that a company such as Google must meet to test and operate self-driving vehicles in the state.

Companies would need to comply with federal motor vehicle safety standards, have operated the self-driving vehicles with a test driver for at least 1 million miles and obtain insurance, surety bond or proof of self-insurance worth at least $10 million.

The legislation has the support of major automakers and suppliers, many House lawmakers and Gov. Snyder.

Snyder has said driverless-car testing and operations are crucial for helping Michigan keep its economic edge and remain the automotive capital of the world after years of economic hardship.

Michigan is one of seven states that, along with Washington, D.C., have laws allowing testing of autonomous cars, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. California, Florida and Nevada have laws allowing for the “operation” of those cars beyond testing.

Jacobsen said he toured the new autonomous vehicles testing site in the works at Willow Run last week with Gov. Rick Snyder and was “very impressed.”

Twitter: @MikeGerstein