Forget Nevada and California -- this state is more serious about autonomous cars

A new law in Michigan makes self-driving cars inevitable.

Google autonomous car pod car self-driving

Think you’ll be letting a full autonomous car drive you to work in Nevada or California anytime soon? While it is already legal to let the car drive on the highway without direct control of the steering wheel and the brake and gas pedals, you still have to be in the driver’s seat.

Now, Michigan has taken a major step in letting you sit in the backseat -- or even letting the car drive around by itself on public roads. In fact, the car doesn’t need a steering wheel. 

While Florida has similar laws, Michigan is the first to enact a law that enables companies like Ford, GM, and Chrysler to test autonomous cars legally with no driver.

The laws were first proposed back in May. It’s a big step in so-called “Level 5” autonomous driving as described by the SAE (the driver does not have to be involved except to set the destination).

Michigan has already allowed self-driving tests public roads as long as their was an operator involved, but this is a more aggressive move because it means companies could even develop an Uber-like experience to send out a fleet of cars, pick up drivers, transport them to a destination, and repeat that pattern all day long.

That’s a nirvana state for safer driving. Cars would be programmed more like an air traffic control center for planes, possibly delaying some “departures” or routing traffic to avoid congestion.

Passengers benefit as well. You would hop in the backseat and could keep texting, working on a laptop, or even meeting with a client on the way to work. My guess is that companies like Ford have a long-term vision to provide autonomous cars in the next 10-20 years that act like a robotic fleet, possibly on roads designated only for self-driving vehicles (similar to how some highways in California are designated only for long-haul trucks). I see this move as extremely positive in terms of a future scenario where no driver is required and A.I. controls the flow of traffic.

Is this scenario a bit troubling? As with any tech innovation, there are pros and cons. The major “pro” here is that human drivers are not getting any better, so self-driving tech will help. Road fatalities in the U.S. had been on the decline, but 2015 saw a spike by of about 2,000 additional deaths on the road. A fully autonomous car, controlled by sensors and A.I., directed by a traffic control center on roads designated for self-driving would certainly reduce fatalities, at least when human drivers are not around.

That said, there is a potential danger in the fact that total computer control could also mean total traffic failure. If there are several thousand cars all driving autonomously at some point, and the control center makes an error, that’s a widespread and catastrophic scenario.

The Michigan law is careful to point out -- this is intended for established Detroit automakers who have shown they are capable to test in a safe and predictable way. I doubt Ford is going to dispatch cars as delivery drones anytime soon. GM is on a path to make self-driving a reality after the Cruise Automation acquisition, but that still seems a distant reality.

Who might be first? I’m guessing the law will help Chrysler the most, now that they have partnered with Google to turn the Pacifica into a self-driving transport vehicle.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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