The U.S. auto industry's home state of Michigan is preparing for the advent of self-driving cars by pushing legislation to allow for public sales and operation — a significant expansion beyond an existing state law that sanctions such vehicles for testing only.
While widespread use of driverless cars may be years away, lawmakers and transportation leaders say the technology is progressing so rapidly that Michigan must stay ahead of the curve or risk losing automotive research and development to other states.
Under a newly introduced package of bipartisan bills that would update 2013 laws to allow for the operation of autonomous cars on public roads without anyone at the wheel, tight "platoons" of smart commercial trucks could travel in unison at coordinated speeds. Also, the Detroit Three — General Motors, Fiat Chrysler and Ford — and other auto manufacturers would be authorized to run networks of on-demand self-driving vehicles.
It is a nod to the manufacturers' increasing efforts to reinvent themselves as "mobility" companies. GM this year invested $500 million in ride-hailing company Lyft and bought a startup that makes autonomous-vehicle software. Toyota recently announced an investment in Lyft's rival, Uber. Google, which is opening a self-driving tech development in the Detroit suburb of Novi, is partnering with Fiat Chrysler to test software in 100 minivans.
"It's coming. It's coming fast," Michigan Department of Transportation Director Kirk Steudle said of the merging of Silicon Valley and Motor City technology. "The technology is at a point where it will be incorporated into something that is mass-produced."
Michigan is among seven states with laws related to autonomous cars, while Arizona's governor has issued an executive order. Nevada was the first state to authorize self-driving vehicles in 2011, and California, Florida, North Dakota, Tennessee and Utah followed.
Google, based in California, has said it wants to make cars available to the public around the end of 2019, assuming its data shows the time is right for deployment. Already next month, a convoy of autonomously driven Army trucks will be tested along a stretch of Interstate 69 in the state's northern "Thumb" region. Someone will be at the wheel of each vehicle, as currently required by state law, as a precaution.
Michigan's DOT worked with legislators to develop the bills, which also have support from the state's economic development officials. Gov. Rick Snyder is "very supportive" of the concept, a spokesman said.
"We're working with the industry and MDOT so that once these vehicles are on the road you can rest assured that they are safe," said the lead sponsor, Republican Sen. Mike Kowall, who lives near a GM testing facility in suburban Detroit. "I see the autonomous vehicles being tested on the road every day. It's weird. But it's what's going to move the auto industry into the 24th and 25th century."
He expects a Senate panel to begin considering the bills this summer.
Consumer Watchdog, a California-based advocacy group that has voiced safety and privacy concerns over autonomous vehicles, criticized the Michigan legislation. President Jamie Court said a "line needs to be drawn" to ensure that a human driver can take control if something goes wrong.
"It's foolhardy to rush into this without a plan just because it seems to be a way to stimulate jobs," Court said. Self-driving cars have a "long, long way to go" in part because "robots and humans don't communicate," he said.
One of the Michigan bills would end the human operator requirement, while another would help create a facility to test autonomous and wirelessly connected cars at highway speeds at the site of a defunct GM plant that once churned out World War II bombers.
"We're going to lead on this. That's very important," said Steve Arwood, the state's top economic development official. "It's not good enough to just be good enough."