Michigan's new self-driving car laws help automakers, hobble Uber

December 13, 2016

The auto industry is constrained by a patchwork of federal and state laws. This is, in part, why Tesla has had such a tough time selling its vehicles in certain states. It's also made things difficult for automakers who are trying to develop self-driving vehicles: what might be perfectly legal in some states is illegal in others

That may not be an issue in Michigan, though.

More than five years after Nevada became the first state to allow autonomous cars on public roads, Michigan has finally followed suit. The delay might seem odd, given that Michigan is home to America's three largest automakers. For those companies and others, however, the wait was worth it.

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That's because Michigan's four new self-driving car laws are among the most permissive in the nation:

  • Unlike some other states, Michigan will allow the testing of vehicles without steering wheels or pedals.
  • Unlike some other states, Michigan will allow the testing of vehicles that don't require a human driver behind the wheel.
  • Michigan is developing a system of testing autonomous vehicles that will allow those vehicles to be sold to consumers or used in ride-sharing fleets as soon as the technology has been certified.

But one company clearly isn't happy with one of the four laws signed by Governor Rick Snyder: SB 996. That particular bill states that only automakers can use autonomous vehicles in ride-sharing or taxi fleets. That's great news for Fiat Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors, but not-so-great news for Uber (which, ironically, helped legislators craft the four laws).

Uber, of course, is working long and hard to develop a fleet of fully autonomous vehicles. (Sorry, Uber drivers.) It's begun testing those vehicles in Pittsburgh, and if all goes as planned, other cities will be added to the map before long--unless other states begin drafting laws like Michigan's SB 996.

That said, SB 996 isn't as crisp and clear as it could've been. Uber thinks it has some wiggle room because terms like "operator" and "driver" aren't well defined by the law, meaning that the company could argue that its software is technically a driver--a position supported earlier this year in a ruling from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. 

Will Uber have to go to court to make those arguments? We'll keep you posted.

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