Michigan Joins Small Number of States With Self-Driving Car Laws

In response to continued development of autonomous vehicle technology and testing, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed into law a series of measures to help provide a legal and regulatory framework for how self-driving cars could be used on roads in the state.

The new suite of laws (Act No. 332, Act No. 333, Act No. 334, and Act No. 335) legalizes testing and operation of vehicles without drivers, and looks ahead to the potential sale of autonomous vehicles to the public and their use in ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft.

Michigan joins Arizona, California, the District of Columbia, Florida, Nevada, North Dakota, Tennessee, and Utah in enacting statutes or legislation related to autonomous vehicle development.

Driverless vehicles testing facilities in Michigan are in development at the University of Michigan and at a new facility at an industrial site at Ypsilanti. The new laws, informed by input from native Michigan car companies and the state’s economic development agency (which operates with public and private financing) is intended to help insure that existing auto incumbents have a say in shaping the emerging autonomous vehicle regulatory framework.

While the intent of the regulation is to not impede car maker flexibility in testing and developing what could be the transportation of the near future, large areas of planning policy concern have been left unaddressed.

While most autonomous vehicle-level planning decisions are the responsibility of local planners and government officials, a broader discussion of whether autonomous vehicles should be integrated into public transportation networks or whether they should be vehicles for individual sale and use has not yet taken place, according to Jonathan Levine, planning professor at the University of Michigan.

Levine says many of the implied future gains from autonomous vehicles, including reduced emission pollution and traffic congestion, may not be able to be realized without a decision to embed autonomous vehicle usage into the infrastructure and planning of existing mass transit options. Potential impact studies, including one published in Transportation Research, indicate that a lack of strategic thinking with regards to autonomous vehicle deployment and use could actually increase energy consumption and congestion-related problems as the vehicles become available for sale.

Earlier in 2016 the U.S. Department of Transportation released voluntary guidelines for autonomous vehicle development that set benchmarks for automakers to achieve prior to self-driving cars being cleared to be used on public roads, including performance assessments and information sharing. Additionally, the guidelines recommended that states pass legislation, such as Michigan has done, to codify how autonomous vehicles could and should interact within the confines of traffic laws and vehicle inspections and liability.

The federal standards are set to be updated annually as the technology continues to evolve. In recent hearings on Capitol Hill in November, tensions were evident between states' guidelines — tailored to the burgeoning autonomous vehicle testing facilities and limited use — and federal guidelines, which were supported by automakers who were nonetheless not willing to commit to a single federal regulatory standard.

As the technology continues to mature, the states with more elaborate regulatory frameworks and with the most autonomous vehicles in operation may dictate the development of future standards.

Top image: A fully autonomous, 15-passenger electric shuttle manufactured by French firm NAVYA rolling through Mcity, a closed-course testing facility at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Photo courtesy University of Michigan.


About the Author
Jeffrey Bates is APA's state government affairs associate.

January 19, 2017

By Jeffrey Bates