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Proposed Legislation in Michigan For Driverless Cars

The Stanford Center For Internet & Society (CIS) analyzed several draft driverless-car bills under consideration by legislators in Michigan. The analysis highlighted the issues and inconsistencies by the proposed legislation. First, the good news. While SB 995 repeals existing laws that ban driverless cars, it:

"... would return Michigan law to flexible ambiguity on the question of the legality of automated driving in general. The bill probably goes even further by expressly authorizing automated driving: It provides that "[a]n automated motor vehicle may be operated on a street or highway on this state," and the summary of the bill as reported from committee similarly concludes that SB 995 would "[a]llow an automated motor vehicle to be operated on a street or highway in Michigan." (This provision is somewhat confusing because it would be added to an existing statutory section that currently addresses only research and testing and because it would seem to subvert many restrictions on research tests and "on-demand automated motor vehicle networks.") Regardless, this bill would also exempt groups of closely spaced and tightly coordinated vehicles from certain following-distance requirements that are incompatible with platooning."

Platooning is a method for several driverless vehicles to operate together on highways with less space in between, than otherwise. Advocates claim this maximizes the capacity of highways. What does this mean for safety? Do consumers want platooning? Can drivers opt out? If platooning is allowed, then the driverless vehicle you ultimately buy must be outfitted with that software feature.

The drawbacks of the draft legislation:

"... The currently proposed language could mean that automated driving is lawful only in the context of research and development and "on-demand motor vehicle networks." Or it could mean that automated driving is lawful generally and that these networks are subject to more restrictive requirements. It could mean that any company could run a driverless taxi service, including motor vehicle manufacturers that might otherwise face unrelated and unspecified legal impediments. Or it could mean that a company seeking to run a driverless taxi service must partner with a motor vehicle manufacturer -- or that such a company must at least purchase production vehicles, the modification of which might then be restricted by SB 927 and 928 (see below). It could also mean that municipalities could regulate and tax only those driverless taxi services that do not involve a manufacturer..."

And:

"... SB 995 and 996 understandably struggle to reconcile an existing vehicle code with automated driving. Under existing Michigan law, a "driver" is "every person who drives or is in actual physical control of a vehicle," an "operator" is "a person, other than a chauffeur, who "[o]perates" either "a motor vehicle" or "an automated motor vehicle," and "operate" means either "[b]eing in actual physical control of a vehicle" or "[c]ausing an automated motor vehicle to move under its own power in automatic mode," which "includes engaging the automated technology of that automated motor vehicle for that purpose." The new bills would not change this language, but they would further complicate these concepts in several ways..."

I encourage you to read the long list of complications in the CIS analysis. Another key issue:

"Consider the provision that "an automated driving system ... shall be considered the driver or operator ... for purposes of determining conformance to any applicable traffic or motor vehicle laws." This provision says nothing about who or what the driver is for purposes of determining liability for a violation of those laws, particularly when there is no crash. SB 996 does provide that "a motor vehicle manufacturer shall assume liability for each incident in which the automated driving system is at fault," subject to the state's existing insurance code..."

The proposed legislation is important for several reasons. Besides platooning and the list of complications, it decides: a) which types of companies can operate driverless-car networks, b) who is liable and under what conditions, and c) who can repair driverless cars. All items affect consumers rights. A narrow definition of "A" (e.g., only automakers) would mean fewer competitors, and probably higher prices due to a lack of competition. Similarly, a narrow definition of "C" could mean fewer options and choices for consumers, with higher repair prices. Liability must be clear for instances when a driverless vehicle violates road laws; and especially when there is a crash and/or fatality.

Consistency and clarity matter, too. The final legislation and definitions also should be forward-thinking. It's not just driverless vehicles but also remotely-operated vehicles. Companies want remotely-operated ships on the oceans, and remotely-operated trucks are already used off-road for mining purposes. It seems wise to anticipate that off-road use will probably migrate to roads and highways.

Clearly, the proposed legislation in Michigan is not ready yet for prime time. This topic definitely bears monitoring.

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