Oakland Press: Michigan set to become center of driverless vehicle technology

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Sen. Mike Kowall

Sen. Mike Kowall

By Sen. Mike Kowall
15th Senate District

Laws are moving through the Legislature that are designed to keep Michigan at the cutting edge of automobile technology innovation, growth and design.

In early September, the Senate passed Senate Bills 995 – 998, the legislative package that would update our state’s autonomous vehicles law to provide safer transportation, better mobility and a stronger economy. The House is now poised to pass these measures as well.

These latest bills are necessary to keep Michigan at the forefront of the industry. In 2013, I sponsored legislation that became the current autonomous vehicles law in our state. Unfortunately, current law is becoming more outdated day by day as technology advances and other states seek the new automotive industry for themselves.

Michigan’s dominance in auto research and development is under attack from several states and countries who desire to supplant our leadership in transportation.

I will do everything I can to prevent that from happening. That is why I was the lead sponsor of SBs 995 – 998 back in May, the same week that Google announced that the company will be opening a self-driving test center in Novi.

Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) Director Kirk Steudle testified at the Senate Committee on Economic Development and International Investment hearing in August in support of the legislation.

“For more than three decades, MDOT’s mission statement has remained the same: We strive to provide integrated transportation services for economic benefit and quality of life,” Steudle said. “Developing autonomous and connected vehicle technology is a big piece of economic development, and we are happy to support the Michigan Economic Development Corporation and private industry in their efforts to help Michigan remain a leader. Thanks to Senator Kowall for taking the lead on these bills, and to Chairman Horn for bringing them to a successful vote.”

Sen. Ken Horn, who chairs the committee, is the sponsor of SB 998.

“Michigan, for much of its history, has been known throughout the world as the home of the automobile, and it is only appropriate that we continue to be a pioneer in the industry,” said Horn, R-Frankenmuth. “Data shows that more than 90 percent of auto accidents are caused because of human error. If we can remain an integral part of the development of technology to reduce these errors, I think it will be a great move for our state.”

SBs 995 – 998 would update Michigan’s current laws regarding autonomous vehicle testing to allow “real world” testing and operation to determine the technology needed to safely introduce these vehicles into the marketplace.

The bills would also specify that as technology emerges, companies will be able to operate a driverless vehicle on public roads so long as an operator is able to supervise and control the vehicle. Liability provisions would ensure people are protected when they are acting in good faith with a manufacturer’s instructions when they service a vehicle, but not when they make unsafe or unauthorized modifications.

The legislation would establish standards that these vehicles must adhere to, and it would authorize the creation of the American Center for Mobility at the abandoned Willow Run facility. The repurposed 300-acre lot is expected to serve a vital role in Michigan’s research and development surrounding autonomous vehicles. The redevelopment is expected to be a boost for the economies of surrounding communities.

The legislative package strikes the proper balance between oversight and innovation. The role of government is first to protect the health, safety and welfare of the general public. With that in mind, we also must make room for the automotive and high-tech industries to grow at their own rate without being hobbled by government watching every move they make.

Gov. Rick Snyder is supportive of our efforts to support innovation in the industry. With SBs 995 – 998 now before the Michigan House, it is my hope that the bills are enacted into law by Jan. 1, 2017, before the start of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

That would send a strong signal that Michigan remains a viable, welcoming place for automotive companies and other high-tech industries.

This column first appeared in the Oakland Press. Senator Mike Kowall, R-White Lake, is the Michigan Senate majority floor leader. He serves the residents of the 15th Senate District, representing western Oakland County.