Driverless car bills speed through Michigan Senate

Michael Gerstein, and Michael Martinez

Lansing — The Michigan Senate overwhelmingly approved a legislative package Wednesday that would let companies cruise ahead with plans to operate driverless vehicles on Michigan roads, with one legislator comparing it to the race to put a man on the moon.

In a series of 36-0 votes, the Republican-controlled chamber approved bills that would allow the burgeoning autonomous car industry to put electronically controlled vehicles on any Michigan road.

“We’re moving into the next century, ladies and gentlemen,” Senate Majority Floor Leader Mike Kowall, R-White Lake, told fellow senators as he urged support for the legislation, which he introduced earlier this year.

The package of four bills aims to keep Michigan ahead of competing states like California and Florida that are trying to lure companies and investments with autonomous car-friendly laws.

The new laws would allow the public to buy and use fully driverless cars whenever they’re available. They would allow an autonomous car without a steering wheel or pedals, and not require that a human be ready to take control in an emergency. Until now, autonomous vehicles could only be driven in Michigan for test purposes, and a driver had to be at the ready.

The new laws also would allow ride-sharing services without drivers to be operated by auto manufacturers or ride-hailing services like Lyft or Uber. One of the bills would also allow for the decommissioning of small stretches of public road to be used privately as part of the proposed American Center for Mobility test site at Willow Run.

“I see this as the equivalent of the race to space,” said state Sen. Ken Horn, R-Frankenmuth. “We can think of these Senate bills as one small step for Lansing, one giant leap for driverless mankind.”

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

The legislation now moves to the state House for consideration.

Bryant Walker Smith, a law professor at the University of South Carolina who studies self-driving car regulation, called the bills “a mixed bag.”

“Critically, they are in desperate need of clarification followed by thoughtful discussion,” he said.

Walker Smith said the bills do a good job of allowing autonomous vehicles on the road, but much of the language becomes confusing and difficult to differentiate from current laws.

“Like earlier bills in Michigan and other states, SB 995 and 996 understandably struggle to reconcile an existing vehicle code with automated driving,” he said, going on to call some of the language “collectively, a mess.”

The bills follow a state board’s July approval of $20 million to help transform a former World War II bomber plant in Ypsilanti into a new testing facility for autonomous vehicles. The facility would be complete with roads, traffic lights and cul-de-sacs at Willow Run.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is expected to release draft guidelines later this year that would serve as a framework for states crafting new laws that allow the self-driving cars on public roads. It’s unclear when companies might open sales to the general public.

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