Michigan moves to allow autonomous vehicle testing without an occupant


The state of Michigan has taken another step forward in its ambition to become “the center of the universe for autonomous vehicle studies” following the state senate’s approval of bills to allow self-driving cars to operate without an occupant.

Under a series of bills that are advancing in the state’s legislature process, Michigan would no longer require that anyone needs to be inside a self-driving car that was being tested on public roads. The legislation has been passed unanimously by the state senate, where proponents are pushing for the measures as being essential in keeping the home of the USA’s automobile industry at the forefront of development of the new and rapidly-advancing technology.

The bills are on track for final legislative approval by the end of the year, and have been heavily endorsed by the state’s Republican Governor, Rick Snyder. Although Michigan would no longer require an occupant in an autonomous test vehicle, researchers would need to be able to remotely and ‘promptly’ take control of the vehicle’s movements if needed, or the vehicle would have to be able to stop or slow of its own accord.

Supporters have cited the requirement of an on-board human operator as an unnecessary restriction, which could result in Michigan losing out on research and development programs that would go to other states with less stringent regulations. Other provisions in the proposed legislation would also: allow the public operation of driverless vehicles when they are sold; ease restrictions on trucks ‘platooning’, where they are connected wirelessly and traveling closely together, with speeds governed by a lead vehicle; allow auto makers or mobility providers to operate networks of on-demand ride-sharing/hailing autonomous vehicles; the creation of the American Center for Mobility, a national facility for connected and automated vehicle (CAV) testing and development at the former Ford, GM, and bomber factory site at Willow Run, near Ann Arbor.

Speaking at the Senate hearing, lead sponsor of the new legislation, Senator Mike Kowall (R-White Lake – pictured right), said, “Driverless car technology could be as big for Michigan as Henry Ford’s creation of the assembly line. This technology could prove safer than human drivers. With your assistance, we’re going to secure Michigan’s place as the center of the universe for autonomous vehicle studies, research, development and manufacturing.”

In February 2012, Nevada became the first state to approve regulations that outline the requirements for companies to test driverless cars on its roads. Earlier this year, Florida removed a requirement that a human operator must be present in an autonomous vehicle for testing purposes. Five other states have laws related to autonomous vehicles: California, Louisiana, North Dakota, Tennessee, and Utah. They all have differing rules on how driverless testing can be performed on public roads, with California’s being the most restrictive according to the auto industry. The US Department of Transportation (USDOT), and its related federal agencies, is currently developing recommendations for states to follow on autonomous driving, which are expected to be released before the end of the year.

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Tom has edited Traffic Technology International (TTi) magazine and its Traffic Technology Today website since May 2014. During his time at the title, he has interviewed some of the top transportation chiefs at public agencies around the world as well as CEOs of leading multinationals and ground-breaking start-ups. Tom's earlier career saw him working on some the UK's leading consumer magazine titles. He has a law degree from the London School of Economics (LSE).