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Ahead of the Curve Auto Supplier Blog

March 11, 2013

Michigan Senate’s Autonomous Vehicle Bill Lacks Key Provisions

Though we are years away from “driving” one on the road, autonomous vehicles are becoming a driving force in industry and government. Google and other companies have logged hundreds of thousands of miles in their autonomous vehicles. California, Nevada and Florida have already passed laws to regulate testing and use of autonomous vehicles. Governor Snyder made a point of mentioning their importance in his State of the State speech.  And now the Michigan Senate is considering legislation. If you are in the auto industry, or in another industry that might use autonomous vehicles, such as mining or agriculture, this legislation will likely affect you.   The Senate’s proposed legislation will amend the state’s Motor Vehicle Code to allow autonomous vehicles to drive on Michigan’s public roads for research and testing purposes. The legislation, Senate Bill 169, defines an “automated vehicle” as one outfitted with “automated technology” capable of replacing a human driver. These are vehicles that can operate completely independent of any human. Excluded from this legislation are vehicles with some autonomy features but are not fully autonomous, such as those with blind spot and parking assistance, cruise control or emergency breaking features.  Under Senate Bill 169, manufacturers of automated technology may drive an automated vehicle on Michigan’s public roads solely for research and testing purposes. A human driver must be in the vehicle at all times to monitor its performance and to intervene, if necessary. The bill also requires that the automated vehicle be outfitted with technology that (1) allows a human occupant to easily disengage the automated technology, (2) clearly indicates to a human occupant when the vehicle is driving in “automated mode,” and (3) alerts a human occupant when an automated technology failure requires the intervention of a human driver.    If passed, this legislation could put Michigan at the forefront of automated vehicle development.  While this is certainly a move in the right direction, there are some concerns with the proposal that should be addressed before it reaches Governor Snyder’s desk. 
  • The bill allows an “upfitter” -- a person who installs automated technology into an existing vehicle to convert it to an automated vehicle -- to transport or test the automated vehicle on public roads as long as the upfitter is “recognized” by the Secretary of State.  However, the bill fails to define “recognized” or outline the requirements an upfitter would have to meet before becoming “recognized.” Even though the current law uses the term “recognized,” with respect to subcomponent system producers, use of the term could have new and different implications for “upfitters” who do not fit the category of subcomponent system producers. 
  • The bill defines “operator” as the person who “causes the automated vehicle’s automated technology to engage” whether or not physically present in the vehicle. Under this definition, an operator who pushes a button from miles away could arguably be considered an “operator” and, thus, subject to liability under the bill. This could affect automated vehicle testing in many ways, including liability and liability coverage.  California’s law limits “operator” to either the person in the driver’s seat or the person who engages the automated technology if there is no one in the driver’s seat.   
  • The bill does not address other uses for autonomous vehicles. There is already talk about using such autonomous vehicles for mining and other industrial uses. Such use is likely to come about before we see autonomous vehicles on the road. 
 If you are an auto supplier involved in the autonomous vehicle field or interested in becoming involved in the field, or if you are in an industry that may use such vehicles, now is a good time to get involved and address these issues with the Michigan legislature before the bill becomes law. The Warner Norcross & Judd Automotive Industry Group includes attorneys with extensive experience dealing with the automotive supply industry. Warner also has a highly experienced legislative/lobbying group that serves our clients' interests when legislation is proposed. Let us know if we can help you.

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