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Autonomous Vehicle Bills Cruise Out of Senate to Open Road In House

September 13, 2016

A four-bill package – SB 0995, SB 0996, SB 0997 and SB 0998 — designed to authorize the testing of autonomous vehicle research in Michigan passed the Senate unanimously Wednesday and appears to have an open road for passage in the House.

Hours after the Senate gave the bills the green light, House Speaker Kevin Cotter (R-Mt. Pleasant) mentioned the package in a reporter scrum as one of two top priorities for the House this fall.

“A few of us never get the opportunity to make such dramatic changes in the history of the state of Michigan,” Sen. Mike Kowall (R-White Lake), the lead sponsor of the bipartisan package told his colleagues prior to the vote. “Some 125 years ago, a young man by the name of Henry Ford, invented what is known now as the moving assembly line. Not since then has anything as dramatic as that taken place here in the state of Michigan.

The legislation was introduced on May 25 and moved on a fast track considering the small number of legislative session days that have taken place since that date. The package was reported out of the Senate Committee on Economic Development and International Investment just last week.

“Michigan is the supreme car builder in the world,” Sen. Ken Horn (R-Frankenmuth), the sponsor of SB 998, said. “To me, this is the equivalent of the race to space. It is going to make our cars safer. We could say, ‘it’s a small step for Lansing and one giant leap for mankind.'”

Under the bills, autonomous vehicles would be given the go-ahead for testing on 122 miles of Michigan roads. In addition, SB 0997, sponsored by Sen. Rebekah Warren (D-Ann Arbor), would authorize that Willow Run airport in Washtenaw County be developed as a testing facility for the vehicles. The package would also create the Michigan Council on Future Mobility within MDOT, which will provide recommendations for ongoing policy changes needed as development of autonomous vehicles progresses.

“To show how wide this has spread, at the beginning of the year the Queen of England told her nation she wanted Great Britain to be the center for autonomous car development,” Kowall said, following the votes taken in the Senate. “But we know that Michigan is the center of the universe for building automobiles.”

MIRS asked Kowall if there are any concerns about how long it might take the House to take up and pass the legislation.

“Not as long as it gets done before the end of the year,” Kowall said. “But, realistically, I’d think they want to be able to tell voters they passed this before the election. This is going to involve so much; the universities are excited about it. It’s a real game-changer — it’s going to change so many things. Insurance companies are already looking at this and beginning to think about how it will change what they do.”

“The law that we drafted in 2013 was just to allow testing,” said Kowall, who sponsored both the current AV package and the state’s existing 2013 law. “It was opening the roads up to testing. This opens everything — as long as you have everything working and you pass all the standards that we set forward, go ahead, get going. Sell a product.”

Specialty legal counsel on AVs for Ford Motor Company, Emily Frascaroli, said the legislation is a “first step, but a big first step” toward a regulatory framework for AVs to become the new normal. Automakers, including Ford and General Motors, emphasized to the committee the rate of innovation indicates the publicly available autonomous vehicles is not far away.

Ford’s government affairs director, Charlie Pryde, told the committee that Ford is well in the midst of developing AVs, showing that this legislative package is not premature. Pryde told MIRS that Ford has spent a “substantial” amount of money already to develop AVs.

GM’s chief engineer Pam Fletcher echoed Pryde. “There are literally innovations every day that improve performance on automated driving systems,” Fletcher said in her testimony.

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