Thursday, February 7, 2013

Michigan Considering Automated Vehicle Law

Audi "connect" prototype during a demonstration in CA (with Michigan plates)
In his 2013 State of the State Address, Governor Snyder encouraged the legislature to establish a legal framework for the operation of automated vehicles in the state. Senator Mike Kowall, a Republican from Michigan's 15th District (Western Oakland County) has introduced such a bill. Senate Bill No. 169 of 2013 was introduced February 7th 2013, and referred to the Senate Committee on Transportation.

The full text of S.B. 169, as introduced, is available here. Generally, the bill introduces some key definitions into the Michigan Vehicle Code and inserts three sections outlining the regulation of automated (aka autonomous) vehicles. As a practical matter, this bill would change very little. Manufacturers, suppliers, and technology companies (i.e. Google) are already conducting limited testing of automated vehicle systems on public roads in several states, including Michigan. However, such companies have been operating without official sanction (with the recent exception of Nevada). As a matter of law, when an activity is not forbidden, it is generally allowed. Thus, automated vehicles have always been permitted on Michigan roads subject to any applicable motor vehicle regulations. The effect of S.B. 169 is primarily to recognize the legality of automated vehicle testing on public roads in the State of Michigan by approved organizations.

Automated vehicles, as usually defined, are not yet available to consumers and probably will not be for at least a few years. So, from a car-buyers perspective, S.B. 169 would change nothing in the short-term. However, the qualifier "in the short-term" is important. The bill actually does forbid the operation of automated vehicles by anyone other than organizations approved by the Michigan Secretary of State until at least February 2014.  This would make Michigan the first state to outlaw non-sanctioned operation of automated vehicles on public roads. However, this restriction appears to be an interim safety measure--not permanent. The bill specifically instructs the Michigan Secretary of State and Department of Motor Vehicles to jointly author and submit a report to the State Legislature by February 1, 2014. Such a report would presumably include recommendations for the structured regulation of public use of automated vehicles, if and when they become available to normal vehicle consumers. Considering the state of flux of the technology, industry standards,  and federal regulatory intent, this temporary ban on use by normal drivers is probably a valid approach.

Some highlights of the S.B. 169, as introduced, are as follows:

  • The following definitions are added to the definitions section of the Michigan Vehicle Code:
    1. Automated Vehicle: A Motor Vehicle Equipped with automated technology.
    2. Automated Technology: Technology installed on a motor vehicle that has the capability to operate the vehicle on which the technology is installed without the direct active control or monitoring by a human operator. Automated technology does not include a motor vehicle operating with 1 or more active safety systems or operator assistance systems, including, but not limited to, a system to provide electronic blind spot assistance, crash avoidance, emergency braking, parking assistance, adaptive cruise control, lane keep assistance, lane departure warning, or traffic jam and queuing assistance, unless 1 or more of these listed systems, alone or in combination with other systems, enable the vehicle on which the technology is installed to operate without active control or monitoring by a human operator.
    3. Automatic Mode: The operation of an automated vehicle by automated technology.
    4. Upfitter: A person who modifies a motor vehicle after it was manufactured by installing automated technology in that motor vehicle to convert it to an automated vehicle.
  • The bill specifies that the Secretary of State may recognize an "upfitter" as a subcomponent producer. This would make such a person eligible for special (M) plate registration used by manufacturers subcomponent producers to test or transport prototype vehicle on public roads.
  • The bill forbids use of a vehicle in automatic mode on public roads other than for testing proposes by approved organizations. 
  • The bill places the following restrictions on testing operation:
  • A human operator [test-driver] shall be present in the vehicle at all times while operating on public roads.
  • The vehicle shall be insured under existing provisions for prototype vehicle testing.
  • The vehicle shall meet all federal regulations. Federal regulations will supersede state law in the event of a conflict.
  • The vehicle shall have a "means to engage and disengage the automated technology that is easily accessible to the operator."
  • The "vehicle shall have a means to visually indicate when the vehicle is operating in automated (sic) mode."
  • The vehicle "shall have a means to alert its operator if an automated technology failure affecting its ability to safety operate in automated mode is detected while it is operating in automated mode in order to indicate to its operator to take control of the vehicle."

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