Michigan makes its play to be center of self-driving car universe

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In the race to innovate, there often are rewards for being first. Just as technology firms and automakers vie to roll out the first scalable autonomous vehicle, so too are eight U.S. jurisdictions competing to be hotbeds of autonomous vehicle development.

In Michigan, long the home of America’s largest automotive manufacturers, the state Senate last week signaled it will be aggressive in seeking to maintain its position as leader of the field. The chamber unanimously approved a package of four bills (S.B. 995, S.B. 996, S.B. 997 and S.B. 998) intended to establish Michigan as the jurisdiction most friendly to autonomous-vehicle development and deployment. The package would, among other things, establish an AV research center and create a liability shield for mechanics working on AVs.

But most crucial of the four bills is S.B. 995, which allows testing and deployment of autonomous vehicles in the Great Lake State. S.B. 995 explicitly deviates from the direction taken by the other heavyweight AV jurisdiction, California, in its approach to autonomous-vehicle legislation. Where California’s legislation grants broad discretion to the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles to develop autonomous-vehicle regulations, Michigan’s legislation specifically addresses head-on many of the politically charged value judgments that go into autonomous vehicle safety and operation.

For instance, while California is contemplating banning the operation of vehicles without steering wheels or pedals – attributes common to high-level “NHTSA Level 4” automation – Michigan is seeking explicitly to approve such vehicles. Given the coordinated opposition from groups like Consumer Watchdog, who blithely stoke fear by continuing to refer to these vehicles as “robot cars,” Michigan should be lauded for taking such a risk.

Also of note is that, where California’s proposed regulations require vehicles to be leased from manufacturers to the public for no more than three years, Michigan would allow for vehicles to be sold to consumers outright. This would allow development and deployment to be conducted simultaneously as elements of the technology are mastered and pushed out to the fleet.

Perhaps most significantly, in the near term, is that while California’s proposed regulations include an outright ban on the commercial use of autonomous-vehicle technology, S.B. 995 specifically contemplates it. Given the promise of platooned road-going freight movement, the appearance of transportation network companies and the ever-growing demand for same-day package delivery, Michigan’s stance is decidedly more forward-looking than California’s on this front.

If these bills pass the state House of Representatives without substantial amendment, it’s not unthinkable that this new industry’s center of gravity may continue to shift away from Silicon Valley and back toward the original Motor City. But it bears noting that Michigan is not the first state to attempt to attract autonomous-vehicle development away from California. Pennsylvania is home to Uber’s testing facility and, though a development hub, has not surpassed California as the pre-eminent location for AV-industry growth. Nevada, just down the road from some of California’s leading AV firms, has also remained a distant second-place location for testing and development purposes.

What might set Michigan apart, and what must be driving the state’s legislators to act quickly and with such unity of thought, are twin factors: identity and infrastructure. The state’s very character as the nation’s transportation leader is on the line. While its laser-focus on the auto industry has, at times, hobbled the state, it also has the production infrastructure necessary to build the next generation of individual transportation. In that capacity, unlike other states that would challenge California via liberalized laws alone, Michigan is uniquely poised to leverage regulatory adaptability into economic growth.


Photo by Steve Lagreca / Shutterstock.com

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