Driverless-car bill aims to smooth technology fast lane

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From Crain's Detroit Business

The Michigan Legislature isn't taking a hands-off approach to the testing of autonomous vehicles, but it isn't looking to be a backseat driver either, experts say.

The Senate is expected to vote on S.B. 169 this week, which will regulate the testing of driverless vehicles on Michigan's roads.

Sen. Mike Kowall, R-White Lake, who introduced the bill in February, said the bill is less about legalization and more about promoting autonomous technology in Michigan.

"This is really a huge economic development bill," Kowall said. "This is going to have an effect of attracting new companies and building upon existing companies that are already here."

Michigan acted in response to other states. Lawmakers in Florida, Nevada, California and Arizona have passed legislation already. Kowall said the patchwork of state laws will serve as a stand-in until the U.S. Department of Transportation and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration weigh in on the federal level.

Auburn Hills-based Continental Automotive Inc. predicts at least partially autonomous vehicles will be market-ready by 2016, with combined technologies such as adaptive cruise control and accident avoidance systems. Adaptive cruise control uses forward-facing radar and camera systems to detect the speed and distance of the vehicle ahead of it — allowing a driver to simply follow the lead car when enabled.

Semi-autonomous vehicles, where the driver still must interact but not operate all functions of driving, will hit the market in 2020, the company said.

By 2025, some cars may drive fully independently, experts are predicting.

Continental has logged thousands of hours on its semi-autonomous Volkswagen Passat in Michigan, Arizona and Nevada. It also helped draft the proposed changes to Michigan's Motor Vehicle Code.

Continental tests the Passat at its test tracks in Auburn Hills and Brimley, Mich., as well as on public roads around the state — always with a driver behind the wheel, the company said.

"The legislation is very important to us," said Steffen Linkenbach, director of systems and technology for Continental Automotive's chassis and safety division. "Obviously, if you're looking at this from a macro level, Michigan is a place that's conducive to this type of testing; it already has the high-tech suppliers in this area."

During testimony before the Senate Transportation Committee in February, Michigan Department of Transportation Director Kirk Steudle said Michigan companies are spending an estimated $120,000 every time they leave the state for a test trip on autonomous cars.

"It seems absolutely crazy that we should put that burden on suppliers and manufacturers," he told the committee. "They're here, and they should be able to do that testing right here in Michigan."

The bill would allow for suppliers and technology companies to apply for manufacturers' plates to test autonomous vehicles as well as define liability for automakers. Under the bill, automakers are not "civilly liable for damage resulting from the conversion of that vehicle into an automated vehicle by another person. …"

Florida is the only other state that offers a liability exemption to automakers, an important distinction, said Ryan Bewersdorf, senior counsel for Foley & Lardner LLP in Detroit.

"The bill allows the state to say it's pro-driverless car technology, provides a framework for federal legislation and exempts manufacturers from liability," Bewersdorf said. "That's all it does, but it's significant because liability issues are exactly what corporate legal departments are looking into and one that gives a broad exemption, as Michigan's does, could tip the scales on where development will happen."

The bill also specifies a driver must always be behind the wheel in testing these vehicles.

Tom Manganello, partner at Southfield-based Warner Norcross & Judd LLP and advisory committee member for Detroit Regional Chamber-led auto advocacy group MichAuto, said the legislation is couched to keep liability on the driver, for good reason.

"Ultimately, they want an occupant in the vehicle and that occupant to be able to disengage that technology," Manganello said. "They want to keep the driver in charge. Otherwise, they'll always have to find who is responsible: the braking system supplier or the autonomous system supplier? The legal issues are going to be interesting."

Manganello said as the technology progresses and the industry brushes closer with putting autonomous, or even semi-autonomous, vehicles in dealerships, further liability issues will need to be addressed.

"There will be questions about driver override and whether driver input affected the vehicle," he said. "There will be all sorts of supply chain and indemnification issues that will be need to be dealt with."

While the Senate bill is focused on testing the vehicles, the bill does call for further recommendations from MDOT and the secretary of state no later than Feb. 1, 2014.

Kowall said the government and companies, including Google Inc., which has its own driverless car, have worked collaboratively on the legislation and hope to maximize Michigan's stake in this technology as it progresses.

Linkenbach said competiveness among products and brands will eventually take over as the cars begin to go to market, but working together for now is critical to the industry's success in the state.

"We need to be careful that we are not last to test these technologies and face a disadvantage with Germany, Europe and Asia," he said. "So it's been very collaborative as we try to learn and understand the technology as quickly as it's being developed, but who knows what will happen in the future." 

 

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