Michigan approves cars without drivers or steering wheels on its roads

The state also approved of platooning, or convoys of autonomous vehicles

autonomous vehicles Michigan
Credit: Gov. Rick Snyder

The governor of Michigan today signed into law a series of bills that allows fully autonomous vehicles, including those without drivers and steering wheels, to begin using public roadways.

Flanked by a Ford Model T and a self-driving Ford Fusion, Gov. Rick Snyder signed four bills as part of the autonomous vehicles legislative package that allows the operation of autonomous vehicles on Michigan public roads. Before, only testing of the vehicles by manufacturers was permitted.

"As far as I know, Michigan is the first state to make it official that these types of vehicles can be used on public roads," said Brandon Schoettle, a project manager with the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute.

"California is also planning to enact similar legislation soon. Obviously, the general act of vehicles driving around like this on any public roads is somewhat unprecedented anywhere, given the very recent introduction of such technology," Schoettle said.

Earlier this year, Pittsburgh began allowing real-world tests of a self-driving, Uber-owned Ford Fusion.

uatc car bridge uber Uber

An Uber autonomous car prototype in Pittsburgh.

Several states and Washington D.C. have passed autonomous vehicle legislation that allows for testing of the cars and trucks on public roadways. Since 2012, at least 34 states and D.C. have considered legislation related to autonomous vehicles.

In September, the National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued guidelines for autonomous vehicles that included a checklist for carmakers  developing the technology, as well as guidelines for states on creating a common framework for regulating self-driving cars and trucks.

“I believe regulation is now the biggest obstacle to the introduction of autonomous vehicles -- even more than cost or technology. The only other competing factor is societal acceptance, which will relate to the laws in the end," said Andy Schmahl, a partner and consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers.

A news release from Snyder's office said the new laws will ensure "Michigan continues to be the world leader in autonomous, driverless and connected vehicle technology.

"Michigan put the world on wheels and now we are leading the way in transforming the auto industry," Snyder said in the statement. "We are becoming the mobility industry, shaped around technology that makes us more aware and safer as we're driving. By recognizing that and aligning our state's policies as new technology is developed, we will continue as the leader the rest of the world sees as its biggest competition."

At the bill signing, Snyder was joined by a primary bill sponsor, Sen. Mike Kowall, and executives from Ford and GM.

Along with enabling fully-autonomous vehicles to use public roadways, the bills also outlined specific parameters for companies such as Google and Uber, who are developing on-demand autonomous vehicle networks.

connected cars autonomous vehicles NHTSA

Vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) electronic communications technology is helping to advance autonomous vehicles.

Another bill signed into law exempts mechanics from any damages to vehicles that result from repairs, if the repairs were made in accordance with manufacturer specifications.

All safety requirements that pertain to the testing of autonomous vehicles will apply to autonomous vehicle operation, the governor's office said.

The primary bill, SB 995, also allows automated vehicle platooning, where vehicles travel together at electronically coordinated speeds. Additionally, the legislation creates the Michigan Council on Future Mobility within the state's Department of Transportation. It's designed to make future recommendations on statewide policy  "that will keep Michigan ahead of the curve on regulatory issues that could impede new development."

In addition to enabling autonomous fleet delivery tricks and on-demand ride services, one of the main benefits of fully autonomous vehicles will be that owners can summon them when needed so that they don't waste parking spaces, Schoettle said in an email to Computerworld.

"For example, driver A only needs to get to and from work, otherwise the vehicle sits in a parking lot all day. This way, it can return home to driver B for them to use throughout the day before returning to pick up driver A at 5 p.m.," Schoettle said. "As you can imagine, there are quite a variety of ways a vehicle could be shared like this."

Ford, GM and other companies developing autonomous driving technology have been using Michigan's Mcity, a 32-acre, full-scale simulated real-world urban environment where vehicles self-drive in every condition, including snow.

Michigan is also home to the largest deployment of vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) electronic communications technology in its Smart Corridor. The corridor is a series of public highways -- more than 120 miles in all -- in Southeast Michigan that have more than 100 Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC) transponder units. The DSRC units share traffic information with cars and trucks that have V2I and vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications technology and alert drivers to potential problems to prevent accidents.

For example, if a V2V-enabled car makes a sudden stop in heavy fog or its stability control engages on a rain-slicked road, every V2V-enabled car around it will know almost instantly, giving drivers time to react.

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