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Will the Michigan House get ‘behind the wheel’ of pending driverless-car legislation?

September 8, 2016 by Steven M. Gursten

What happens next, as the MI Senate unanimously approved bills that provide open roads to autonomous, self-driving motor vehicles?

By Runner1928 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

In a unanimous 36-0 vote, the Michigan Senate approved “autonomous vehicle” legislation – Senate Bills 995-998 – which will, in the words of the bill-package’s sponsor, Sen. Mike Kowell (R-White Lake):

Keep Michigan “competitive with the rest of the nation” and “help ensure Michigan remains the worldwide leader in automotive research and development.”

But, even more importantly, these bills get us closer to a driverless-car future where, according to predictions by the NHTSA Administrator, “the promise of automated vehicles” could potentially prevent or mitigate 19 of every 20” car accidents.

If researching, developing, testing and deploying self-driving cars is what it’s going to take to dramatically reduce the number of automobile accidents in Michigan and throughout the country, and in the process save tens of thousands of lives every year and save the country hundreds of millions in medical bills, lost productivity and earnings, and insurance costs, then that’s one ride this (hopefully one day soon former) auto accident attorney will take.

Now, the bills go to the Michigan House of Representatives for consideration.

Below I will briefly cruise through the highlights of the Committee-approved autonomous-vehicle bills.

Can a driverless car be driven legally in Michigan?

Currently, yes, but under very limited circumstances. Under Michigan’s existing law, driverless cars can only be driven on Michigan roadways for the purpose of road-testing, i.e., “solely to transport or test automated technology …” (MCL 257.244(3))

That will change significantly if SB 995-998 are ultimately supported by the full Legislature and signed into law by the Governor.

Under the Senate-approved versions of the autonomous vehicle bills, driverless cars will be able to be driven for any of the following purposes:

  • Personal use.
  • Road testing.
  • As part of a SAVE program or “on-demand automated vehicle network.”
  • As part of a platoon.

Who can ‘drive’ or operate autonomous vehicles in Michigan?

Under existing law, only “manufacturers of automated technology” and their employees can operate self-driving cars and, even then, they can only do so in the context of road testing.

Under SB 995-998, the list of eligible drivers will expand to include:

  • Regular folks driving for personal use. “An automated vehicle may be operated on a street or highway in this state.” (SB 995, page 10, lines 24-25, amendment to 257.665)
  • University researchers who are conducting road-testing. (SB 995)
  • MDOT employees are conducting road-testing. (SB 995)

Significantly, in its written testimony to the Senate Committee on Economic Development, Ford Motor Company stated:

“The most important thing about SB 995 is that it permits on-road use of AVs,” i.e., “autonomous vehicles.”

Does this mean driverless cars will literally be ‘driverless,’ i.e., without a human driver or any human present in the car?

Yes. Under existing law, even driverless cars that are being road-tested must have an “individual … present” who “has the ability to monitor the vehicle’s performance and, if necessary, immediately take control of the vehicle’s movements.” (MCL 257.665(2)(b))

However, under the changes proposed in the Senate-approved versions of SB 995-998, an “automated motor vehicle” can be “operated without any control or monitoring by a human operator” by regular folks, during road testing, as part of a SAVE project and/or as part of a platoon. (SB 995)

If there’s no person in an autonomous vehicle, then who’s ‘driving’?

For you sci-fi fans, the answer to this question will really blow your mind: The computer is considered the driver!

Specifically, here’s what SB 995 (pages 10-11) proposes:

“When engaged, an automated driving system allowing for operation without a human operator shall be considered the driver or operator of a vehicle for purposes of determining conformance to any applicable traffic or motor vehicle laws and shall be deemed to satisfy electronically all physical acts required by a driver or operator of the vehicle.”

What is a SAVE project?

A SAVE Project is an “initiative that authorizes eligible motor vehicle manufacturers to make available to the public on-demand automated vehicle networks …” (SB 995)

SB 995 defines a “on-demand automated motor vehicle network” as:

A “digital network or software application used to connect passengers to automated motor vehicles … for transportation between locations chosen by the passenger when the automated motor vehicle is operated without any control or monitoring by a human operator.”

So, essentially, a SAVE project allows a car manufacturer to go into the Uber-type business of app-based ride-sharing services … but by using driverless cars.

One of the interesting aspects of the SAVE Project concept is that, under SB 996, vehicles in the participating fleet must have “automated driving system,” “automatic crash notification technology” and a “data recording system” that keeps track of automated driving system’s “status” and the vehicle’s speed, direction and location before a crash. Administrators of the SAVE Project “… shall maintain incident reports …”

Additionally, SB 996’s proposal for liability in the SAVE Project context is progressive and it would be great to see it expanded to other autonomous-vehicle areas:

“For each save project in which it participates, during the time that an automated driving system is in control of a vehicle in the participating fleet, a motor vehicle manufacturer shall assume liability for each incident in which the automated driving system is at fault …” (SB 996, page 4)

What is a ‘platoon’?

Senate Bill 995 defines a “platoon” as a “group of individual motor vehicles that are traveling in a unified manner at electronically coordinated speeds.” (SB 995) To be able to operate autonomous vehicles as part of a platoon, one must file “a plan for general platoon operations” with and obtain approval from the Michigan State Police and the Michigan Department of Transportation. (SB 995)

Why I support Driverless car legislation in Michigan?

I’ve written about this many times and the reason this is so important is because perfection is not the metric against which driverless cars should be judged. The proper way to weigh this technology is this: is it safer than humans? We should not demand a world where no car accident can ever happen before this technology is widely embraced, but we should demand that when it is proven to be more safe than humans that every unnecessary obstacle to its wider adoption be removed.

As one of the few lawyers who has spoken on this topic at seminars, here is what I know: it is coming. And it is coming faster than most people can imagine.

Michigan has a choice – we can get ahead of this and embrace it, or we can be left behind. I hope our legislature embraces driverless autonomous cars because it is the future.

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