Imagine driving down the road and glancing over at the car next to you, only to find the driver’s seat (or the car) empty. It could soon become reality as politicians in Michigan, Florida, and other states move to loosen laws and attract developers of autonomous technology to their districts.
Legislation passed unanimously in the Michigan Senate this week would remove the requirement for a person to be inside a self-driving car being testing on public roads. It has the backing of Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and could be approved by the end of 2016.
Michigan State Sen. Mike Kowall, the lead sponsor of the legislation, likened the potential impact of self-driving technology to that of Henry Ford’s assembly line a century ago. “We’re going to secure Michigan’s place…as the center of the universe for autonomous vehicle studies, research, development, and manufacturing,” Kowall said.
Unlike more stringent laws in states such as California, the Michigan legislation would also allow the public to operate autonomous vehicles once they’re sold. And it would permit automakers to operate networks of on-demand autonomous taxis of the type Ford recently announced and Uber is testing in Pittsburgh, albeit with human drivers ready to take the helm.
Michigan is one of seven states with laws already on the books to regulate autonomous cars; Arizona’s governor signed an executive order last year to “undertake any necessary steps to support the testing and operation of self-driving vehicles on public roads” by various state agencies.
Michigan isn’t the first state to allow completely driverless cars on public roads. Earlier this year, Florida expanded existing legislation that eliminates the requirement of a driver in the vehicle while testing autonomous vehicles on public roads. But so far automakers haven’t yet flocked to the Sunshine State.
Automakers and technology companies like Google and Uber, which are quickly developing self-driving technology, have pushed for the federal government to create a regulatory framework that states would have to follow. Rulings are expected to be released by the end of the year, although it’s unlikely that the feds will allow ghost cars on freeways just yet.
Nevada, the first state to allow testing of autonomous cars on public roads, requires at least one person in a self-driving car at all times when testing. But Jude Hurin with the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles told the Associated Press that the state is considering whether to amend that stipulation in 2017.
The loosening of autonomous-car test requirements is due in part to California’s recent proposed restrictions on the technology. After Google racked up more than 1.5 million miles riding robo-style mainly on California roads, the search giant’s relationship with Golden State soured when regulators said they might keep the human driver requirement in place. Google, however, has envisioned vehicles that don’t even have a steering wheel or pedals.
The stringent California laws also don’t allow companies to sell self-driving cars to consumers and requires an independent third party to certify the safety of autonomous technology. “There’s a lot of desire to have something that doesn’t go to that extreme,” Kelly Bartlett, a senior policy and legislative adviser for the Michigan Department of Transportation, told the AP. “We think that this is going to be the most comprehensive package without being really overblown like California.”
Sure, it would be a shock to see a car next to you on the highway without anyone in the driver’s seat. But in many cases I’d prefer to have machines in control of a multi-ton vehicle barreling down the road than a human staring at the phone.
Originally published by PCMag.com