MICHIGAN, the cradle of the US automotive industry, has done the unthinkable and made it legal to buy and drive cars that don’t even have a steering wheel.
The move comes as the state attempts to reaffirm its position as the hub of automotive manufacturing in the US, even as the focus on autonomous car development shifts to Silicon Valley.
Michigan Governor Rick Snyder says the new regulations will guarantee the state continues to be the centre of local manufacturing in the US.
"Michigan put the world on wheels and now we are leading the way in transforming the auto industry," he said. “We are becoming the mobility industry, shaped around technology that makes us more aware and safer as we’re driving. By recognizing that and aligning our state’s policies as new technology is developed, we will continue as the leader the rest of the world sees as its biggest competition.”
Michigan joins 15 other US states in allowing testing of autonomous vehicles. Nevada was first in 2011. California, the home of Silicon Valley, will soon take things a step further by allowing vehicles that lack a steering wheel, brake pedal, accelerator or even a driver inside the vehicle to test on public roads.
Ford has laid plans to mass-produce a fully autonomous vehicle by 2021 as part of its Smart Mobility plan. The company’s president and chief executive, Mark Fields, said the new regulations were one of the most important advances in automotive history.
“This is every bit as significant as the introduction of the moving assembly line by Ford 100 years ago,” Fields said. “We are dedicated to offering autonomous vehicles that can improve safety and solve social and environmental challenges for millions of people.”
Ford currently tests its autonomous vehicles in Palo Alto, California. However, Michigan is vying to woo the company to test around the company’s headquarters in Detroit.
University of Michigan transport expert Brandon Schoettle said he remained cautious about the regulations.
“The act of vehicles driving around like this on any public road is unprecedented given the recent introduction of such technology,” he said.
Along with testing regulations, Snyder also enacted laws that will protect mechanics from being sued if an autonomous vehicle was involved in a crash, so long as it was serviced or repaired in accordance with manufacturer specifications.
Volkswagen is another carmaker concerned that Silicon Valley is shaping up to be the new hub of automotive development. Earlier this year it called for Europe to take the lead in developing car technology, saying the valley had “overshadowed” traditional carmakers in recent years.
"We must not leave this playing field to Silicon Valley," Volkswagen Group chief executive Mueller said earlier this year at an announcement that also revealed the carmaker’s plans to reinvent itself as an electric “mobility solutions” provider.
It has also called on European legislators to set the framework in place to allow driverless cars to take to roads in the region.