Michigan Jumps Into the Deep End of Autonomous Car Testing

New laws will allow for wide-open testing without a human in the car.


The state of Michigan is facing unease over autonomous cars head-on with four bills that will dramatically increase self-driving car testing on public streets.

Expected to be signed into law are four bills sponsored by three state senators — Rebekah Warren, a Democrat; Ken Horn, a Republican; and Mike Kowall, a Republican — that will make Michigan the standout trendsetter on how to govern our inevitably autonomous future.

Senate bills 995, 996, 997, and 998 build on existing frameworks for autonomous vehicles in the state, where autonomous cars have been legal for testing purposes since 2014. The package covers everything from making them conventionally street-legal (995) to autonomous car hacking (998). With minimal resistance, each one passed with either 104 or 105 out of a possible 107 state senators voting in favor. Now they’re on Governor Rick Snyder’s desk awaiting his signature. He’s long been a proponent of autonomous testing, calling for it in his 2013 State of the State address.

“By allowing the testing of automated, driverless cars today, we will stay at the forefront in automotive technological advances that will make driving safer and more efficient in the future,” Snyder said then.

Snyder’s state of the state address resulted in a 2014 law that created legal ways to test self-driving cars in Michigan, but it turns out that was only the beginning.

“It didn’t take long for the 2014 legislation around the testing of autonomous vehicles to become obsolete. We’re making sure this thing keeps moving,” Kowall tells Inverse. “It’s way cool. I’m 65 and people my age look at it with a jaded eye, they want to be in control. Young folks would rather stay connected than drive, and I can’t say I blame them.”

An image from Google's video about its self-driving car project.

Kowall also brings up the “moral responsibility” to promote the research and development of autonomous cars in Michigan such that the state might maintain its “fabulous heritage for putting the world on wheels.” Ford CEO Mark Fields announced this year that he wants to see car company offer fully autonomous cars available for ride-sharing by 2021.

Horn emphasizes the economic boons that the state stands to win by asserting itself as a major player in the autonomous car game. “Building cars is in our state’s DNA,” he says. “Fully mainstream driverless cars are going to require a lot of engineers and researchers. We’ll be seeking software and IT people to help us connect the automotive world.”

Tesla's autonomous technology in action.

As it stands today, 76 percent of American automotive development and research happens in Michigan. None other than Google has set up a facility in Kowall’s district for research into autonomous vehicle programming, and Uber is moving into Detroit for cloudy — perhaps autonomous — reasons.

Outside of automobile manufacture being a component of Michigan pride, it’s easy to see why this legislation has bipartisan support. Approximately 3,287 people die in car accidents every day around the world. Able to operate and respond to road conditions more quickly and accurately than people, autonomous cars push back against a driving paradigm that sees 1.3 million people killed on roads annually. Sufficiently advanced development of autonomous technology literally preserves human life.

Taking a substantive hit between 2006 and 2010, the GDP of Detroit declined from $212 billion to $196 billion. It has been on the uptick ever since, charting more than $240 billion in 2015. Michigan is placing its bets on the niche that seems most poised to usher in the state’s next era of prosperity, and with tech-savvy representatives leading the way, it seems bound to happen.

There are tertiary benefits to be had along the way. In the process of developing such pro-life technology, engineers will connect a variety of other technical dots and introduce novel solutions to problems we didn’t even know we had in other fields. Just as NASA’s efforts to put a man on the moon literally yielded your memory foam mattress, your handheld cordless vacuum cleaner, and Tang, incentivized work into sci-fi caliber driverless technology stands to blend ideas in ways we likely haven’t thought of yet.

Your autonomous car technology will see this before you do.

Flickr / Macomb Paynes

Michigan’s lawmakers aren’t willing to wait long for it to happen.

“My wife hit a deer the other day in our brand-new car, and it did a little damage that cost $7,000 to repair,” says Kowall. “Had she had a LIDAR system, probably wouldn’t have hit that deer. I was in a test vehicle at Ford the other day and you could see everything with a Predator-style heat signature. I could see a squirrel in the testing area — that car knew the squirrel was there.”

Related Tags