On December 9, 2016, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder signed into law new legislation that expressly permits the deployment of driverless vehicles on public roads, the operation of “on-demand” driverless taxi networks, and the “platooning” of electronically connected trucks and other vehicles. The new legislation is designed to give Michigan a competitive edge in the development of driverless vehicle technology. In a statement, Governor Snyder touted Michigan as “the global center for automotive technology and development.”

Prior to this legislation, Michigan law had permitted only the testing of autonomous vehicles and only with a human driver present at all times. The new legislation removes these limitations, which had been criticized by manufacturers and developers of autonomous vehicle technology. Michigan’s new laws come shortly after recent federal guidance on automated vehicles was issued by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (“NHTSA”) in September 2016.

In total, Governor Snyder signed four bills on autonomous vehicles:

Senate Bill 995 explicitly authorizes the operation of “an automated motor vehicle . . . on a street or highway in this state” and removes the prior requirement that an automated vehicle have a human driver present in the vehicle ready to take control. The law contains several other key provisions:

  • It allows the operation of “on-demand automated motor vehicle networks.” The legislation provides for two types of on-demand networks. The first, called a “SAVE project,” is operated by an eligible motor vehicle manufacturer. The second may be operated by non-manufacturers but must include vehicles that are “supplied or controlled” by a manufacturer. Though somewhat ambiguous, the new legislation potentially limits on-demand automated vehicle networks to established automakers or companies who partner with them. The legislation also precludes local authorities from imposing fees or regulations on on-demand networks—at least through 2022.
  • It allows vehicle “platooning”—a group of vehicles (such as commercial trucks) that travel “in a unified manner at electronically coordinated speeds.” Laws requiring safe following distances will not apply to “platoons” under the new legislation, but platoon operators would have to ensure “reasonable access for other vehicles to afford those vehicles safe movement among lanes or exit or enter the highway.” A platoon operator must submit a general plan for platoon operations with the Michigan Department of State Police and the State Transportation Department. However, the legislation does not specify any criteria or standards by which such platooning plans will be evaluated.
  • It clarifies that, for the purposes of applying existing traffic and motor vehicle laws, the “automated driving system” (when engaged) is considered the “driver” or “operator” of an automated vehicle. It also clarifies that “texting-while-driving” bans do not apply to people using licensed automated vehicles or on-demand automated vehicle networks.
  • It immunizes manufacturers of automated driving technology from liability arising out of modifications to a vehicle or its automated driving system that are made without the manufacturer’s consent. While the scope and effect of the immunization are not entirely clear, the legislation aims to provide some assurances to manufacturers that they will not be held liable for aftermarket modifications performed by consumers or third parties.
  • It establishes a “Michigan council on future mobility” for providing policy recommendations to the legislature and state government agencies “to ensure that [Michigan] continues to be the world leader in autonomous, driverless, and connected vehicle technology.” The council will consist of individuals representing local governments, industry, academia, insurance interests, the legislature, and state agencies, and will submit its initial recommendations by March 31, 2017.

Senate Bill 996 creates conditions for the “safe autonomous vehicle” or “SAVE” projects—private initiatives by which eligible motor vehicle manufacturers create automated vehicle fleets that provide on-demand transportation to the public within a defined geographical boundary. Apart from data sharing (regarding accident information) and insurance requirements, automated vehicle manufacturers are for the most part allowed to structure their service as they see fit.

Senate Bill 997 removes road signage requirements for mobility research centers, such as the proposed “American Center for Mobility” at Willow Run, a former airport outside Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Senate Bill 998 exempts auto mechanics and repair facilities from product liability for repairs on automated vehicles when those repairs are performed according to manufacturer specifications.