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How Michigan lawmakers seek to open the path for self-driving cars

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Eric Risberg/AP

(Read caption) In this photo taken May 18, 2016, a Google self-driving car is seen on display at Google's I/O conference in Mountain View, Calif. California regulators are asking members of the public what they think about proposed regulations that would eventually permit self-driving cars that lack a steering wheel or pedals on public roads

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Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed four bills on Friday that create the first package of state-level regulation on self-driving cars, in what state officials on both sides of the aisle hope will put the state at the vanguard of investment and development for the budding industry.

“In my heart I view this as a portal opening for safety, for opportunity for more economic success,” said Governor Snyder during the bills’ signing at the Automobile Hall of Fame in Dearborn, according to the Detroit News. "We should be proud we’re leading the world, right here in Michigan.” 

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Seven other states, and Washington, D.C., have laws that permit testing of self-driving cars, and three others allow them to ply the roads more broadly. But as the nation’s first stab at a comprehensive legal framework for the cars, the Michigan laws shine a light on how lawmakers have struggled to stay abreast of rapidly changing technologies that could eventually revolutionize the roadways. 

Back in 2009, when Google first tested driverless cars in California, noted the Harvard Business Review this month, legislators floundered to find even the proper vocabulary for what was being unveiled.  

"The legal system is playing an urgent game of catch-up, focused on the perhaps lengthy interim period when autonomous vehicles share the roads with distracted, drunk, and error-prone humans,” wrote the Review. 

“If lawmakers don’t handle this correctly — well, consider Red Flag laws. At the dawn of the first automotive age, laws were passed in some areas that required a person carrying a red flag to warn people that a “horseless carriage” was coming. Pennsylvania went further, requiring that motorists 'stop, disassemble their vehicle, and conceal the parts in bushes if the car frightened a passing horse.' (Only a veto by the governor kept the law, passed unanimously, from taking effect.)" 

The new package in Michigan is perhaps a bit more thoughtfully designed: they allow testing of vehicles without steering wheels or brakes and their sale once they’ve been certified, legalizes ride-sharing services, and establishes a new wing of the state department of transportation that will recommend policies and regulate the collection and sharing of traffic data, according to the Detroit Free Press. It does so in a way that would seem to preserve power for Michigan’s automakers: the new permissions apply to “motor vehicle manufacturers,” meaning companies that pioneer software but don’t build and distribute cars themselves, like Google, Apple and Uber, may have to work with car manufacturers, according to Recode. Tech companies had successfully lobbied for a revision of language that they worried could exclude them from testing.

“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 Michigan Department of Transportation spokesperson told the site. “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.” 

Some thorny issues that could surface as humans start sharing the road with autonomous vehicles may have more to do with human psychology than legal structures. In one study released in November by the London School of Economics, conducted among 12,000 participants in 11 countries, some respondents said that when behind the wheel, they might be tempted to push around cars without drivers.

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"[The autonomous vehicles are] going to stop,” said one UK-based respondent. "So you’re going to mug them right off. They’re going to stop and you’re just going to nip round."