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Michigan just became the first state to pass comprehensive self-driving regulations

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed four bills that regulate the testing, development and eventually the sale of self-driving cars.

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Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed four bills into law on Friday that would create the first comprehensive statewide self-driving regulations in the U.S.

The bills, introduced in the state Senate in May, effectively amend the existing Michigan Motor Vehicle requirements as well as another law that, until today, barred automated driving in the state.

Generally speaking, it’s good that the home of the country’s auto industry is now allowing for not just the testing but also the deployment of on-demand networks of self-driving cars and eventually the sale of autonomous cars.


But a closer read of one of the bills shows that only motor vehicle manufacturers are allowed to operate an on-demand network of self-driving cars.

That means Apple, Uber and Google — which only manufacture prototypes in some cases and don’t distribute motor vehicles — and companies like them can’t launch an Uber for self-driving cars in Michigan unless the companies work with traditional automakers to develop those cars.

Why does that matter? As Uber, Lyft and others see it, people won’t own cars in the future and will largely commute and move around using on-demand networks like — you guessed it — Uber and Lyft.

“Google and Apple wouldn’t be classified as a motor vehicle manufacturer until they have vehicles on the open market that meet [the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s] Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards,” a spokesperson for the Michigan DOT told Recode. “For now, they would be classified as a manufacturer of automated vehicle technology and could become a motor vehicle manufacturer if they met the requirements.”

However, a Google representative pointed out that the company’s self-driving arm is recognized as a manufacturer of record by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Update: According to MDOT Intelligent Transportation Systems program manager Matt Smith, non-traditional automakers like Google, Uber, and Apple will be allowed to test and deploy their vehicles on public roads if the companies either work with a motor vehicle manufacturer to develop and produce those cars or get their vehicle or prototype approved by NHTSA.

It’s exactly this language that the head of Google’s self-driving project, John Krafcik, took issue with in a letter to the Michigan House Communications and Technology Committee in September.

“While the current bill coming out of the Senate may be suitable for traditional motor vehicle manufacturers, we are concerned that ambiguities in two of the definitions ... could be read to exclude other innovative AV [autonomous vehicle] technology companies such as Google from operating in the state,” Krafcik wrote.

Apple posed a similar issue in a letter to the U.S. DOT regarding the federal guidelines for testing of autonomous vehicles. Under the current laws, traditional automakers are allowed to test their vehicles on public roads without seeking official approval, whereas new entrants and startups have to seek an exemption to an existing law before testing any prototypes.

The self-driving coalition’s general counsel David Strickland — who represents Google, Uber, Volvo, Ford and Lyft — wrote that the coalition was pleased that the state was taking steps to move innovation forward but, again, warned against creating a patchwork of state regulations.

“We’re pleased to see that the Governor of Michigan and its state legislators recognize the tremendous safety potential and mobility benefits of self-driving technology,” Strickland wrote. “States play an important role in road safety, such as licensing and registration, but the federal government should provide the national framework to prevent a patchwork of state laws and regulations. We advise states to avoid developing state-specific vehicle requirements that may contribute to inconsistency across the country.”

The new regulations do, to their credit, make the question of liability a little bit clearer. Under the new laws, which go into effect immediately, MDOT will require automakers that are operating a ride-hail network to take full liability for accidents in which the vehicle was driving itself and was found at fault.

This would, of course, require a thorough investigation of each incident to determine fault, but until now there have been serious questions around which party would have to take the blame when there was no one driving.

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