Self-Driving Cars Get Legislative Push: 5 Fast Facts

Lansing, Michigan — Surrounded by legislators as well as executives from Ford and General Motors (GM), on December 9, 2016, Michigan’s Governor Rick Snyder signed a series of bills that will allow fully-automated self-driving vehicles on public roads in his state. During the signing, Governor Snyder sat between a Ford Model T from the last century and a self-driving Ford Fusion from this one.

Surrounded by legislators and auto-industry executives, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder signs a series of laws that allow self-driving vehicles on Michigan’s roads. Credit: Governor Rick Snyder

The governor signed a total of four bills as part of an “autonomous vehicles legislative package”. According to Brandon Schoettle, project manager at the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute, “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”. So what does this new legislation mean for motorists in Michigan, as well as in the rest of the country?

Here are 5 Fast Facts about the legislative push for self-driving cars:

1The New Laws Allow Self-Driving Vehicles to Be Sold to the Public

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Thanks to the new bill, the auto industry will move forward with vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure sensing technology. Credit: U.S. Department of Transportation

The legislation package allows self-driving vehicles to be sold to the public after they’ve been tested and certified. Thanks to the new bills, testing will move forward in Michigan without oppressive government oversight. This means the automobile industry can make progress with the vehicles. Snyder referred to “potential life-saving technology”, because the cars can perceive the presence of other vehicles and obstructions and take evasive maneuvers through what is called vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) sensing technology. Snyder observes that the new legislation “makes Michigan a place where, particularly for the auto industry, it’s a good place to do work”. Michigan transportation director Kirk Steudle says the new laws allow the automotive companies to decide when it’s time to offer the cars for sale to the public.

2Uber and Lyft Are Both Developing Self-Driving Cabs

An Uber self-driving car prototype in Pittsburg. Credit: Uber

Two Internet-based taxi services, Uber and Lyft, are rushing to develop and use self-driving technology for their cabs. The Uber cab company offers services in 66 countries and 507 cities worldwide. Passengers contact the company via a cell-phone app, which orders the cab, automatically calculates the fare, and transfers payment to the driver. The company had revenues of $1.5 billion in 2015. Following Uber’s launch in 2009, other companies copied its business model and began competing. One of these is Lyft. Launched in 2012, the company operates in over 200 U.S. cities, including San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York City.

As with Uber, passengers order Lyft services and pay via a cell-phone app. Lyft had revenues of $800 million in 2015. In February 2015 Uber established the Uber Advanced Technologies Center at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Center supports research into self-driving vehicles — specifically Ford Fusions. Not to be outdone, Lyft began working with General Motors in May 2016 to test self-driving Chevrolet Bolt cabs before the end of 2017. GM has invested a half-billion dollars in Lyft.

3The New Michigan Legislation Will Allow Self-Driving Taxi Services

The new legislation will allow self-driving taxis in Michigan, but it limits operation of the cab services to automobile manufacturers. One of the bills specifies that only motor vehicle manufacturers (such as Ford or Chevrolet) will be permitted to operate on-demand self-driving taxi services. This means that through its partnership with GM, Lyft will be eligible to offer self-driving cabs in Michigan.

The legislation restricts Uber — as well as Apple and Google, which are also researching self-driving vehicles and have begun to manufacture prototypes — from launching self-driving cab services in Michigan. According to a spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Transportation,

“Google and Apple wouldn’t be classified as a motor vehicle manufacturer until they have vehicles on the open market that meet [the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s] Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards”.

4A Crash of a Self-Driving Car Would Fall under Michigan’s No-Fault Insurance Laws

According to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) data, traffic deaths increased in 2015, for a total of 35,200 deaths. Credit: NHTSA

Under Michigan’s no-fault insurance laws, in the event of an accident, each driver’s insurance is required to pay for damage. Michigan’s transportation director Kirk Steudle admits that there will be crashes involving self-driving cars. He further concedes that one or more fatalities are probably inevitable. In the event of a crash involving an autonomous vehicle, Steudle says police will investigate. Law enforcement will presumably report any trends to the state, he says, and the state might then suspend an automobile manufacturer’s self-driving-vehicle license plates and end its tests.

However, vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) sensing technologies are expected to eliminate the human errors that currently cause 94 percent of all motor vehicles accidents. In addition, these and other autonomous-vehicle technologies are expected to reduce the 100 deaths that occur on America’s highways every day, notes Steudle. According to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) data, traffic deaths were up 7.7 percent in 2015, with 35,200 deaths. Steudle asserts,

“It’s a risk worth taking, because the future of the technologies we know are going to help reduce those crashes and reduce those fatalities”.

5Other States Are Expected to Follow Suit Soon

Michigan leads the nation in friendly policies for self-driving vehicles. Credit: State of Michigan

The new laws in Michigan make that state the nation’s self-driving-car leader. This is because the bills offer car companies more autonomy than they would have in a state such as California that requires human back-up drivers for self-driving vehicles. As Brandon Schoettle of the Transportation Research Institute points out,

“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”.

Meanwhile in Pittsburgh, Uber is testing a self-driving Ford Fusion. Since 2012, at least 34 states as well as Washington, D.C. have considered and/or passed  legislation related to autonomous vehicles, including laws allowing self-driving vehicles to be tested on public roadways.

Andy Schmahl, a partner at the business consulting giant PricewaterhouseCoopers, concludes,

“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”.

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